London’s Camden Council censors criticism of Israel
By Ruth Tenne*
In the wake of January’s terrorist attacks in Paris and the unprecedented mass solidarity with the right to “freedom of expression” as claimed by Charlie Hebdo magazine, it is quite distressing to see that Camden Council has decided to block the reputable website Redress information & Analysis in all the public computers of its libraries – a total of more than 100 computers – on the grounds that the website publishes material which is “intolerant and “anti-Semitic in nature”.
As a user of Camden’s public computers, I was appalled to learn in the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza in July-August 2014 that I could no longer access my own articles which were published by Redress Information & Analysis. As a result, I lodged an official complaint addressed to the head of library services in Camden.
In recent years a number of websites have been blocked by Camden Council for criticising Israel’s policies. However, in the past, whenever I complained about the blocking of such websites, the then head of library services in Camden looked into my complaint and, after investigating, unblocked them.
This time the new head of library services, Rachel Brignall, who relegated my complaint to one of her managers, refused to unblock the website . Having encountered a similar response from Camden Council’s cabinet member for customers, culture and communities [Councillor Abdul Hai], I decided to take up my complaint with the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), hoping that its investigator would look into my complaint and thoroughly examine the grounds for Camden Council’s refusal to unblock Redress Information & Analysis. Unfortunately, the LGO’s investigator, who took more than six months to respond to my complaints, issued a draft decision which officially rubber-stamped Camden Council’s decision to block the website.
My response to the draft decision of the LGO investigator (see below) clearly demonstrates the fact that the LGO’s so-called “investigation” was merely a whitewash contrived to lend authority to Camden Council’s unjustifiable decision to block Redress Information & Analysis. The points made in my response were as follows:
I was sorry to learn that you upheld Camden Council’s decision to block the Redress [Information & Analysis] website and would like to contest this decision on the following grounds:
1. You said in your draft decision that “the council has a duty of care to all its library users. It needs to ensure material accessed from its public computers complies with its Library Acceptable Use Policy”. However, nowhere in your draft decision did you indicate that you had tried to look at the material posted by Redress [Information & Analysis] in order to investigate the evidence and see whether the council has any grounds for claiming that the website is intolerant and anti-Semitic . In fact, the examples cited by Camden Council’s cabinet member, Abdul Hai, (letter dated 6 August 2014) include some lines from an article by Lawrence Davidson who examines the reasons for the persistently violent behaviour of Israelis, arguing that this “pathological disposition to violence will have grave consequences for Jews unless they take a stand against Israel”, as well as a post by another source [Tali Shapiro, an Israeli] which claims that “Israelis celebrate the slaughter of Palestinian children, call for murder of Israeli Arab legislators”.
I hope you would agree that the above examples merely express a critical view of Israel’s policies, as had been reported by various sources of the media, including the national press (see, for instance, this), rather than a genuine evidence of anti-Semitism or racist policies against a minority group or Jews . Moreover, Sam Eastop, Cluster Manager (Libraries), who responded to my initial complaint, seems to have based his argument that the website of Redress [Information & Analysis] displays intolerance against a minority group on a second-hand information, noting that he has been informed “that an inspection of the front page, for example, demonstrates a few articles that are considered anti-Semitic in nature”.
Employing such argument as an excuse for blocking an internet website seems quite ridiculous since the internet and the press quite often include graphic images of mutilated bodies and corpses which could be easily accessed by the users of Camden libraries’ computers (as you know all the national and local press have an email edition which could be accessed by public computer users).
2. In your draft decision you state that “In July 2014 Ms X tried to access a website which publishes articles which are of particular interest to her. She complained to the council about its decision.”
I am sorry to say that this is a factual error as I made it clear in my initial complaint to Camden Council (addressed to Rachel Brignall, Head of Library Services of Camden Council, 5 July 2014) that I ask for the website of Redress [Information & Analysis] to be unblocked in order to have access to my own published articles there, noting that “Redress [Information & Analysis] is a very reputable and world-renowned website that had published a number of my own articles in the past and has always been kept accessible to Camden libraries’ users”. Furthermore, I included in my original complaint a link to my latest article in Redress [Information & Analysis] , entitled “Laying the foundation for Palestinian statehood”, which has now became inaccessible to me and all the users of Camden libraries’ public computers.
I made this point again in my email letter (13 July 2014) to Abdul Hai, Camden Council’s cabinet member for customers, communities and culture, noting that I find it quite surprising that the Redress [Information & Analysis] website was blocked on the grounds of being intolerant and anti-Semitic and adding that “I myself am an Israeli-born Jew and, as you could see from my complaint to Rachel Brignall, the website twice published my own articles” – attaching also a Redress [Information & Analysis] link to my article on Palestinian statehood.
I went on to say: “Perhaps I have to remind the members of ICT [information and communications technology] that Camden is a home for many communities who hold and express different views, and what is considered as “intolerant ” by members of ICT could be regarded as a mere criticism, or different point of view, by other members of Camden’s communities (as my published articles on Redress [Information & Analysis] website may obviously demonstrate)”. I have to add that my articles have been published on various websites, periodicals and books, both in a private and public capacity as a member of Jews for Justice for Palestine (JFJFP), Independent Jewish Voice (IJV) and Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign (CPSC). I believe that Lawrence Davidson, whose articles in Redress [Information & Analysis] were cited by Camden Council as being intolerant and anti-Semitic, is also Jewish, as many thousands of Jewish and Israeli members of civil society in Britain (as well as Europe and the [United] States who have the courage and integrity to criticise Israel’s policies against the Palestinian people, in spite of the harsh reaction from the Jewish mainstream community, from which I have suffered many times in the past .
3. In your draft decision you argue that ”The council uses software to monitor the content of websites accessed from its computers. It believes this is the most practical way of making sure inappropriate material is not viewed on computers in its libraries. The council’s review of website Y found content which it deemed breached the policy.” You went on to conclude that “I am satisfied the council properly reviewed the website and assessed its content against the policy. For this reason I cannot conclude there was fault by the council.”
Yet, it seems strange that your draft decision solely refers to the policies and procedures used by the council, taking the council’s claims on face value without trying to access and investigate the Redress [Information & Analysis] website and check whether, indeed, the website’s articles/reports give ground to the council’s claim of intolerance and anti-Semitism .
Furthermore, the advice I received from the information officer of Liberty, (forwarded to you on 17 December 2014) regarding the blocking of Redress [Information & Analysis] quotes comprehensive guidance on “the management of controversial material in public libraries” published by the Museums and Libraries Archives Council in 2007, which says:
“It is the role of a library and information service that is funded from the public purse to provide, as far as resources allow, access to all publicly available information, whether factual or fiction and regardless of media or format, in which its users claim legitimate interest. Access should not be restricted on any grounds except that of the law. If publicly available material has not incurred legal penalties then it should not be excluded on moral, political, religious, racial or gender grounds, to satisfy the demands of sectional interest. The legal basis of any restriction on access should always be stated.”
What this means is that in order to comply with the HRA [Human Rights Act] , and with industry guidance, libraries should only block access to material that has incurred legal penalties or which is determined by them to be prohibited by law (so as to meet the “proscribed by law” component of the admissible restrictions under the ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights])”. The Liberty adviser, who did look into the material posted on the Redress [Information & Analysis], went on to say: “I have only had a chance to skim a few of the articles on www.redressonline.com; however, I agree that there is a strong case that the library has blocked political speech which is not sufficiently threatening, abusive or insulting to any religious or racial group as to engage the Public Order Act (or any equivalent legislation).”
Liberty’s view is also supported by the fact that the council blocked the Redress [Information & Analysis] website on 4 July 2014 – just when Israel’s raids on the West Bank, which were followed by its war on Gaza, started. It is also clear from Liberty’s advice that my initial complaint does not refer, or relate to, the breach of Human Rights Act, as you seem to maintain, arguing that: “Ms X contends the council’s decision to restrict access to website Y is a breach of the Human Rights Act. This is not a matter the ombudsman should consider because it is for the courts to decide if the council’s actions amount to a breach of the Human Rights Act.” In fact, my complaint is clearly based on my civil rights as a user of public libraries’ computers, as guided by “the management of controversial material in public libraries” (2007), and on being a taxpayer resident or a “customer” (a much publicly-contested term used by the council) of Camden Council whose libraries are funded by the public purse.
Only Camden Council
4. Finally, you maintain in your draft reply that “the council’s review of website Y found content which it deemed breached the policy. I am satisfied the council properly reviewed the website and assessed its content against the policy. For this reason I cannot conclude there was fault by the council.”
You will possibly be surprised to learn that, having seen your draft decision, I decided to contact a number of public libraries in London which I chose at random. Perhaps, quite expectedly, the librarian staff of those libraries, who came from the boroughs of Hounslow, Richmond, Fulham and Hammersmith and Westminster, told me,without exception, that the Redress Information & Analysis website is fully accessible on their public computers, and invited me to their library, after I told them that the Redress [Information & Analysis] website is blocked by Camden Council on all its library computers. Furthermore, a member of the library staff at Westminster (Marylebone Library) responded by saying that he does not understand why the Redress [Information & Analysis] should be blocked. He was happy to renew my expired user card of Marylebone Library ,and invited me to use their computers and access the Redress [Information & Analysis] website as much as I wish.
In view of the above-stated points, I hope that you would carefully reconsider your decision to uphold Camden Council’s unreasonable and baseless blocking of the website of Redress Information & Analysis. I would like to add that I regard my complaint as being concerned with a point of principle and, therefore, would be happy for the final decision to be placed on the website of the LGO with my full name and the title of the website in question (Redress Information & Analysis), thus ensuring full transparency and accessibility to the public and the media”.
Unfortunately, the LGO’s investigator seemed to ignore all the above-stated points of my response to her draft decision. This time she did not take a long time to come back with her final decision which simply reiterated the procedural points she made in her previous draft decision, stating:
“I have found no evidence of fault in the council’s decision to restrict access to website Y from public computers in its libraries. Therefore I have ended my investigation of this complaint.”
Regrettably, Camden Council’s decision to block the Redress [Information & Analysis] website, which was upheld misguidedly by the Local Government Ombudsman, demonstrates a wrong interpretation of the meaning of “democracy in action” – of which local government in Britain is so proud.