Let me introduce you to Councillor John Dixon of Cardiff Council.
You will like him.
On 9 May 2009, John Dixon came to London, and on that day he walked down Tottenham Court Road.
As he walked past one particular shop, he tweeted the following:
"- didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."
It was a tweet: an inconsequential electronic communication to whomsoever followed him on Twitter that day.
Indeed, it would only have been read by those followers who happened to have been checking Twitter either at the time he tweeted it or for a few hours afterwards.
The tweet would then, in effect, disappear from view on the Twitter platform.
And, in real life, John Dixon just carried on walking down Tottenham Court Road.
Now let me introduce you to the Church of Scientology in the United Kingdom.
I will leave you to form your own opinion of them, to be expressed once you have received legal advice.
One member of this organisation, which is of course NOT recognised as a "church" in the United Kingdom, did some searches of Twitter.
Presumably he used the search terms "Scientology" and perhaps "Church".
Or perhaps he used the search terms "Scientology" and "stupid".
We just do not know.
But we do know he was not a follower of Dixon's account when Dixon tweeted, and so he could not have read it when it was originally published.
Instead, the Scientologist must have been searching for tweets and when he saw Dixon was a councillor, he thought this was worthy of taking further.
(This sort of retrospective searching for tweets to then take offence at or action about is, of course, what got Paul Chambers into trouble; and it is similar to those early hour searches which must have led @gillianmckeith to pester a twitterer daring to enjoy Ben Goldacre's Bad Science.)
And so, with searches complete, a complaint was made in December 2009, some seven or so months after Dixon walked down Tottenham Court Road on that May day.
In what context should we see this complaint by the Scientologist? What is the nature of Church of Scientology? And what is the approach of the Church of Scientology to legal threats and complaints?
It could be that Scientologists are concerned and active citizens, helpfully monitoring social media for transgressions of Codes of Conduct.
However, the context I suggest could be as follows.
The Church of Scientology was once described by the High Court on 23 July 1984 in the following terms:
"Scientology is both immoral and socially obnoxious. [A party's lawyer] did not exaggerate when he termed it "pernicious".
"In my judgement it is corrupt, sinister and dangerous.
"It is corrupt because it is based on lies and deceit and has as its real objective money and power for Mr. Hubbard, his wife and those close to him at the top.
"It is sinister because it indulges in infamous practices both to its adherents who do not toe the line unquestioningly and to those outside who criticise or oppose it.
"It is dangerous because it is out to capture people, especially children and impressionable young people, and indoctrinate and brainwash them so that they become the unquestioning captives and tools of the cult, withdrawn from ordinary thought, living and relationships with others."
At this point, I would like to emphasise that, in substantive terms, I personally do not view Scientology as any more or less credible as any other religion; though I am an atheist, I am not strongly anti-religious; I am just anti-abuse of legal power.
And so if it were not for their demonstrable propensity to misuse legal threats, then I would not have any interest in Scientology at all.
For it is demonstrable that Scientology repeatedly uses and misuses litigation - and especially the threat of litigation - against any criticism.
As L Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, stated:
"The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly."
The problem with this approach, as I once pointed out to the (now discredited) British Chiropractic Association, is that one really should only threaten litigation if one can go through with it.
A threat of litigation is not an end in itself.
And so, again and again, the Scientologists have gormlessly threatened litigation, only for it to backfire.
For threats of litigation can lead to actual litigation.
And with actual litigation comes the disclosure (and sometimes publication) of evidence, cross-examination of evidence (in open court), and court judgments (which, of course can be published with absolute privilege).
Accordingly, one would expect that litigation - and regulatory complaints - would be the last thing an entity which values confidentiality and privacy like the Church of Scientology would want to get involved in.
Litigation would lead to exposure and scrutiny of all the things which they wish to keep from public view.
But they simply cannot help themselves, as they seem to like harassing critics so to get their way.
And it is in this context that I suggest we consider the complaint made against Councillor Dixon, though of course, I could be wrong.
We return to the complaint made of Councillor Dixon by the concerned Scientologist.
"To whom it may concern.
"I am writing to bring your attention to some derogatory comments made toward my religion of Scientology, such as:
"4:25 PM may 9th from Tweetie: ""- didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."
"I'm certain I saw other similar comments made by him but cannot prove this as they no longer seem findable in Google, which I am very happy about.
"I find bigotry unacceptable in anyone but even more so in persons in positions of responsibility who should know better, such as Cllr John Dixon."
It is an interesting letter, not least because the complainant (who I do not propose to identify and do not need to) lives in East Grinstead, in East Sussex.
The telling reference to Google suggests that the complainant was indeed simply searching for things to complain about.
So, in December 2009, a Scientologist resident of East Grinstead makes a complaint about a Cardiff councillor about a tweet sent on the Tottenham Court Road seven months before.
The complaint is received by the appropriate "Ombudsman" on Christmas Eve.
The complainant's cover letter, in handwriting, emphasises the complaint is in response to the formal query "How do you think they [the councillor] have broken the code of conduct":
"The dgatory [sic, derogatory] remark made by Cllr Dixon in a tweet (on twitter) at 4.25pm May 9th against the Church of Scientology and scientologists is a breach of Principle 70 "Equality + respect" Schedule 3 of the Welsh Statutory Instrument 2001 No. 2276 (W. 166) - The Conduct of Members (Principles) (Wales) Order 2001."
Here I can do no other than set out the Ombudsman's response to this clearly opportunistic complaint.
It is now for your to form your own view on the Ombudsman's response; however, I regard it as nothing less than utterly witless and illiberal, a document which is horrifying in how - in paragraph after paragraph of deadening bureaucrat-speak - an elected representative is held not to be allowed to criticise Scientology.
PUBLIC SERVICES OMBUDSMAN FOR WALES
Report by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales on the investigation of an allegation made against Councillor Dixon of Cardiff Council, of a breach of the Council's statutory code of conduct for members
THE ALLEGATION INVESTIGATED
1. On 24 December 2009 I received an allegation from [Complainant] that Councillor Dixon had failed to observe the code of conduct for members of Cardiff Council. It was alleged that Councillor Dixon had made disrespectful comments about Scientology on a social networking website (Twitter'). A copy of the allegation is attached at Annex A.
2. As required by Part III of the Local Government Act 2000 (the Act), Cardiff Council has adopted a code of conduct for members which incorporates the provisions of a model code contained in an order made by the Welsh Ministers. A copy of that code is at Annex B. Council members are required to sign an undertaking that, in performing their functions, they will observe the Council's code of conduct. Councillor Dixon gave such an undertaking on 2 May 2008. A copy of that declaration is attached at Annex C.
3. Section 69 of the Act provides the authority for my investigation and the production of this report.
4. During the course of my investigation, I have considered the following Principles and paragraphs of the Code of Conduct:
"Equality and Respect
Members must carry out their duties and responsibilities with due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for all people, regardless of their gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, age or religion, and show respect and consideration
for others ".
Paragraph 2(1) of the Code:
"...You must observe t his code of conduct-
(a) whenever you conduct the business, or are present at a meeting, of your authority;
(b) whenever you act , claim to act or give the impression you are acting in the role of member to which you were elected or appointed;
(c) whenever you act, claim to act or give the impression you are acting as a representative of your authority; or
(d) at all times and in any capacity, in respect of conduct identified in paragraphs 6(1)(a) and 7".
" You must-
Show respect and consideration for others".
"You must not conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute".
5. Councillor Dixon was accordingly put on notice of my intended investigation on 15 January 2010 (Annex D).
6. During my investigation I have obtained copies of three postings Councillor Dixon made on Twitter concerning Scientology (Annex E). I have also obtained a copy of training records from Cardiff Council which showth at Councillor Dixon attended Code of Conduct training on 25 June 2008 (Annex F).
7. I have given Councillor Dixon the opportunity to consider the complaint against him before asking him to respond to my questions (Annex G). I have given Councillor Dixon the opportunity to comment on a draft of this report which included my provisional views and finding. Councillor Dixon chose to make no comment.
MY GUIDANCE DECIDING WHEN THE CODE APPLIES TO MEMBERS
8. I have issued statutory guidance on the code of conduct and in that guidance I stated in relation to members that,
"the Code applies to you:
- Whenever you act in your official capacity, including whenever you are conducting the business of your authority or acting, claiming to act, or give the impression
you are acting, in your official l capacity as a member or as a representative of your authority.
- At any time, if you conduct yourself in a manner which could reasonably by regarded as bringing your office or your authority into disrepute or if you use or attempt to use your position to gain an advantage or avoid a disadvantage for yourself or any other person or if you misuse your authority's resources.
...If you refer to yourself as councillor, the Code will apply to you. This applies in conversation, in writing, or in your use of electronic media. For example, if you have a blog or use Twitter or another social networking service in your role as councillor, then the Code will apply to any comments you make there. Even if you do not use your title, if the content is clearly related to your role, the Code will apply".
TREATING OTHERS WITH RESPECT AND CONSIDERATION
"You must show respect and consideration for others...Members should always treat members of the public courteously and with consideration. Rude and offensive behaviour lowers the public's expectations and confidence in its elected representatives. This is the case in face to face settings such as meetings as well as when communicating by phone, letter, email or other electronic
"You must not behave in a way which would reasonably be regarded as bringing your office or authority into disrepute at any time... you should be aware that your actions in both your public and private life might have an adverse impact on your office or your authority...your actions and behaviour are subject to greater
scrutiny than those of ordinary members of the public".
EVENTS LEADING TO THE ALLEGATION AS ESTABLISHED BY MY INVESTIGATION
9. [Complainant] said in his complaint form dated 18 December 2009 that Councillor Dixon had made a, "derogatory remark in a tweet (on Twitter) at 4.25pm May 9th  against the Church of Scientology and Scientologists". He said that this amounted to a breach of the principle of the code of conduct regarding equality and respect.
1O. In a letter attached to the complaint, [Complainant] said, "I'm certain I saw other similar comments made by [Councillor Dixon] but cannot prove this as they no longer seem to be findable in Google, which I am very happy about. I find bigotry unacceptable in anyone but even more so in persons in positions of responsibility who should know better, such as Cllr John Dixon".
11. In an e-mail to my office dated 10 January 2010, Councillor Dixon enclosed what he described as "the complete record " from his Twitter account. Included within that record were the following 'posts':
"-didn't know there was a Scientology 'church' on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off' (4.25pm May 9th , 2009)
"-just noticed the Scientologis ts are following me on Twitter. Quick, everyone hide and pretend you're out!" (9.16pm May 18th , 2009)
"-just noticed I've got homeopaths joining the scientologists following me now. I can set up my own branch of Ofquack soon!" (11.22pm July 16th,2009)
WHAT COUNCILLOR DIXON SAID IN RESPONSE TO THE ALLEGATION
12. In his e-mail to my office dated 10 January 2010 which attached "the complete record" from his Twitter account (Annex G), Councillor Dixon said that a few days after the particular posting identified by [Complainant]in his complaint, he "noticed that the "Church of Scientology" was following [his] account". He added that he had not taken action to prevent them from doing so. Councillor [Dixon] said he had not, "singled out Scientology for particular criticism " and that he is "critical of anything that is not evidence-based - homeopathy, crystal healing , chiropractic , and nutritionists included ".
Councillor Dixon added,
"To my knowledge, [the Scientologists] have not approached the Council's Monitoring Officer, or the Council's Standards and Ethics Committee, my own Council Group or the Welsh Liberal Democrats" in relation to the matters complained about.
13. In his response to the complaint, Councillor Dixon confirmed that his Twitter identity is "CllrJohnDixon" and that he is responsible for the three "posts" in question.
14. Councillor Dixon said that he has been an elected member since 1999 and that he has most recently agreed to abide by the code of conduct following his election in 2008. Councillor Dixon confirmed that he has attended training arranged by Cardiff
Council on the code of conduct and is, "fully aware of, and takes seriously, [his] responsibilities" in that regard .
15. In relation to the alleged breach of the code of conduct Councillor Dixon said that,
"I do not accept that these posts breach the code of conduct in regard of either paragraph 4(b) or 6(1)a. Para 4(b) only applies under General Provisions 2(1) and paras (a) through (c) clearly do not apply in these circumstances, as I was clearly commenting in a private capacity" (see paragraph 5 of this report).
"I do not accept that para (d) applies, as the comments are not of a nature which would bring my office or authority into disrepute, as per 6(1la, nor are they in breach of paragraph 7, to secure a personal advantage or misuse the resources of the authority".
16. Councillor Dixon's response continued over three pages to set out his views on the "Church of Scientology" and seemingly to advance his reasons for not recognising Scientology as a religion.
Councillor Dixon added,
"While not wishing to assign motives to the complaint, I do find it curious that, despite obviously being aware of the post in question within a matter of days, they took six months to complain about it despite the grave offence which they felt I caused them . I am not particularly difficult to find- being the top Google hit for "'John Dixon" councillor adamsdown' - so the issue can't have been in identifying
17. When asked if he wished to make any additional comments aside from the specific question posed, Councillor Dixon said that,
"I do not recognise Scientology as a religion , and neither is it recognised as such in the UK by the Charities Commission. Even so, I do not accept that Para 4(b) applies in this case for reasons given above, and would argue that there is no issue raised under para 6(1 )a in any event".
18. Councillor John Dixon is a member of Cardiff Council.
19. Councillor Dixon signed his acceptance of the code of conduct of Cardiff Council on 2 May 2008.
20. Councillor Dixon's Twitter identity is "CllrJohnDixon".
21. Councillor Dixon was responsible for the three Twitter 'posts' in question concerning Scientology (Annex E).
22. Was Councillor Dixon bound by the code of conduct when he made the Twitter postings concerning Scientology?
23. If so, did Councillor Dixon fail to show respect and consideration to Scientologists in making his comments?
24. If so, has Councillor Dixon conducted himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing the office of member into disrepute?
ANALYSIS OF EVIDENCE
Was Councillor Dixon bound by the code of conduct when he made the Twitter postings concerning Scientology?
25. Comments made by Councillor Dixon in his response to questions posed by my office suggest that he considers his Twitter postings were not made in his official capacity. Councillor Dixon said that, "para 4(b) only applies under General Provisions 2(1) and paras (a) through (c) clearly do not apply in these
circumstances, as I was clearly comme nting in a private capacity". Later in his response, Councillor Dixon has referred to his postings as being, "quite clearly, whimsical comments, made in a private capacity".
26. Paragraph 2(1)(b) of the Code says that members must observe the Code whenever they act, claim to act or give the impression they are acting (my emphasis) in the role of member to which they were elected or appointed. In his response to the complaint, Councillor Dixon confirmed that his Twitter identity is "CllrJohnDixon". In light of this and in referring to himself as a Councillor in this way, the evidence suggests to me that Councillor Dixon gave the impression that he was acting in his role of member.
If so, does the fact that Councillor Dixon made the three Twitter postings in question mean that he has failed to show respect and consideration to Scientologists?
27.1 expect members to be respectful and show consideration to all members of the public and their views, whether or not their own views may conflict with those held by a member/s of the public.
28. ln his response to the complaint, Councillor Dixon attempted to justify the comments he made about Scientology on Twitter by way of providing case law and other examples which he apparently feels show that Scientology is not a religion. Councillor Dixon also outlined his view that the content of the postings he made were, "fair comment" and were not therefore disrespectful to the complainant or to Scientologists in general.
29. Councillor Dixon also said that, "The views of the "Church of Scientology" on freedom of association, freedom of press, freedom of speech, sexual orientation
and race are in direct opposition to my own, and those who believe in liberal democracy (meant in terms of the nature of society, rather than a political party)".
30. Councillor Dixon has commented upon the reasons he considers the complaint has been made and says that he feels that in making the complaint, my office has been "used" by the Scientologists for a predetermined purpose with some connection to their stated aims.
31. The complainant has described Councillor Dixon's 'posts' as "derogatory" and has said he finds "bigotry unacceptable in anyone but even more so in person in positions of responsibility" in reference to Councillor Dixon's actions. If so, does the fact that Councillor Dixon made the three Twitter postings in question mean that he has conducted himself in a manner which co uld reasonably be regarded as bringing his office into disrepute?
32. Councillor Dixon has confirmed that the postings were made under his Twitter identity, "CllrJohnDixon". Councillor Dixon has also said that whilst he does not accept that he was acting in his official capacity in making the Twitter postings, he does not in any event consider that his postings raise any issue under paragraph 6(1)(a) of the code as his comments, "are not of a nature which would bring my office or authority into disrepute". It appears to me that Councillor Dixon may take this view as he considers that what he said in his Twitter postings was "fair comment" and supported by information such as that contained within the response to the questions posed by my office.
33. The comments made by Councillor Dixon were publicly available on the Twitter website and I note that the complainant refers to them being revealed as a result of a 'Google' internet search . In my view, it would have been clear to those viewing the 'posts' in question that Councillor Dixon was a member in light of the identity he used.
34. Councillor Dixon has told me that he has been an elected member for over ten years and that he has most recently agreed to abide by the Code following his election in 2008 . I have seen a copy of the Council's training records and Councillor Dixon has attended training on the Code in June 2008. Councillor Dixon has also told me that he is "fully aware of, and takers] seriously [his] responsibilities" under the Code. I am however concerned that a member who has served his community for over ten years and has recently attended training does not appear to understand the provisions of the Code, particularly paragraphs 2(1)(b), 4(b) and 6(1)(a). I also note that Councillor Dixon has not shown any remorse for his actions.
35. Despite Councillor Dixon's stated opinion that the comments he made on Twitter were made in a "private capacity", Councillor Dixon referred to himself as a Councillor by using the identity "CllrJohnDixon". Councillor Dixon's decision to do this ensured that he was acting in or at the very least gave the impression that
he was acting in his official capacity and any comments he made using that media including the 'posts' concerning Scientology were subject to the Code, further to paragraph 2(1)(b) given that Councillor Dixon had claimed or given the impression (my
emphasis) he was acting in his role as member.
36. I expect members to be respectful and show consideration to all members of the public and their views, whether or not their own views may conflict with those held by a member of the public. It is entirely appropriate for a member to question the views or beliefs of others, but they must be done in a way which shows respect
and consideration to those holding contrary views. Whether or not Councillor Dixon regards Scientology as a religion, others do, and while I would not wish to prevent Councillor Dixon challenging those views, the means of challenge in this case in
my view falls below the standard expected from a member. Members are also required to promote equality of opportunity for all people regardless of their religion and in not showing respect to views held by a member of the public which they regard as
religious, a member may also be in breach of this Code principle.
37. I am concerned at Councillor Dixon's apparent view that it is acceptable to publish his views on Scientology on a social networking website because he does not recognise Scientology as a religion, the views held by Scientologists are contrary to his own and what he had to say in his opinion was "fair comment and ..[falls] well short of other accusations which have been upheld in court judgements worldwide". Whilst Councillor Dixon is entitled to express his views on the matter, he must ensure that in doing so he is not in breach of the Code provision to show
respect and consideration to others (paragraph 4(b)) and the principle of equality and respect.
38. Councillor Dixon also felt it appropriate to include in his response reasons why he considers the complaint was made to my office. It appears to me that Councillor Dixon believes that the complaint has been motivated by a desire to achieve the policy aims of Scientology. There may be an inference drawn from Councillor Dixon's comments that he feels the motivation for the complaint being made to my office and the aims of Scientology should be considered in the context of the comments themselves and the alleged breaches, which would then justify his comments being made.
39. The evidence suggests to me that Councillor Dixon's posts may amount to a breach of paragraph 4(b) of the code. I also take the view on the basis of the available evidence that Councillor Dixon's conduct may be contrary to the Code principle regarding equality and respect as he has made disrespectful comments about views or opinions held by a member/s of the public, particularly as those comments have been published and as those comments relate to something recognised by members of the public as a religion.
40. The inclusion of Councillor Dixon's comments on Twitter meant that they were widely available to the public . In my view, the context in which these comments were made is more serious than if those comments had been made privately. It may also be
the case that the impact of Councillor Dixon's comments on the complainant has been greater, given the publication of the comments on the website. I note that the complainant has indicated in a letter which accompanied the complaint form that
he was "very happy" that he was, at the point of submitting the complaint, no longer able to find additional comments made by Councillor Dixon via a 'Google' search on the internet.
41. I also take the view that Councillor Dixon's behaviour may have brought the office of member into disrepute. Councillor Dixon posted his comments when using the identity 'CllrJohnDixon'. I consider that those comments were disrespectful and making disrespectful comments about views held by a member of the public whilst holding yourself out as a member, will necessarily negatively impact upon the public perception of that office .
42. I am aware that members increasingly choose to use social networking websites such as Twitter as a means of communication. In doing so, members must be aware that all comments they make are published and attributable to them. They must be particularly alert to paragraph 4(b) of the Code and ensure that they are respectful and courteous to others in what they say. If members to do not adhere to paragraph 4(b) of the Code and the Code principle to promote equality of opportunity for all people, it may be that they also act in breach of paragraph 6(1)(b) and bring the office of member into disrepute.
My finding under section 69 of the Local Government Act 2000 is that my report on this investigation should be referred to the Monitoring Officer of Cardiff Council, for consideration by the Council's Standards Committee.
The Ombudsman's decision was then reported on Wales Online.
And then early on 20 July 2010, an anonymous emailer sent me the Wales Online link and, after basic verification, I posted the link and repeated the Tottenham Court Road tweet.
I also quickly coined the hashtag "#StupidScientology".
This was taken up by Dr Evan Harris and Simon Singh, and then many others.
By lunctime there were thousands of tweets mentioning #StupidScientology.
And by the end of the day...
So what does all this mean?
What have the events connected to #StupidScientology changed, if anything?
It may be too early to tell.
However, it appears to me that the #StupidScientology affair has two significant elements.
First, it appears that people are simply no longer scared by the aggressive and threatening tactics of the Scientologists.
Though I offered to provide pro bono legal help to anyone brave enough to "re-tweet" my initial #StupidScientology tweets, it soon became clear that such comfort was not going to be needed.
And I suspect the Scientologists' lawyers realise that their old methods of intimidation may no longer work when the sheer speed of Twitter and the blogosphere can almost-immediately make certain types of legal threats seem redundant.
There is, of course, some scope for their old methods to be employed, especially against the mainstream media; but the terms of overall engagement may now have changed.
Second, and less heartening, we seem in the United Kingdom to be in the counter-intuitve position that our locally-elected representatives have a narrower right to free expression than either their voters or Members of Parliament.
This cannot be right.
This blog will now follow the progress of this misconceived complaint against Councillor Dixon.
In my opinion, Councillor Dixon is a credit to free thought and local government - for his performance on Newsnight, and for his defiant response overall to the complaint.
This blog will also monitor closely any further attempts by Scientologists to apply their aggressive and threatening manner to free discussion on any social media.
(And, on a personal note, nothing will ever take away from the incredible joy of watching Kirsty Wark read out on BBC Newsnight the hashtag #StupidScientology. Yay! :-) )
No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.
PLEASE DO NOT NAME OR DEFAME THE COMPLAINANT OR ANY OTHER INDIVIDUAL SCIENTOLOGIST.