One may wonder what Bull Connor, the epitome of the racist resistance to the American civil rights movement, has to do with an Information Tribunal ruling. What the ruling represents is a clear echo of the ideology and approach to individual civil rights that permeated the resistance to equal rights in America. The answer will raise the alarm of all UK residents because it means their rights are under threat.
In the United Kingdom, we are in a period of post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act. The government is reviewing the legislation after 7 years to see if it is operating as intended. Following the scrutiny, Committee may propose changes to the legislation. Two areas that some authorities and organisations have expressed concerns over are cost limits and vexatious requests. The argument is that trivial requests and vexatious requests waste time and resources. The argument is that the legislation needs to be changed to cut or drop them. In particular, several people gave written or oral evidence of requests that appeared vexatious or wasted time.
In this fervid atmosphere, the Information Tribunal made a ruling that brought both of these points together. They ruled that two exemptions could be joined to declare a request vexatious. The two are s.14 (vexatious) and this could be shown by a request that would be refused for exceeding the fees limit (s.12 exemption) fees limit exemption. If it cost too much to respond this could be the basis for characterising the request as vexatious. The ruling can be found here:
A good summary of the technical side of the case can be found here at the Panopticonblog.
How can the free exercise of our rights lead to them being removed?
The key point for all UK citizens is the following paragraph.
19. Abuse of the right to information under s.1 of FOIA is the most dangerous enemy of the continuing exercise of that right for legitimate purposes. It damages FOIA and the vital rights that it enacted in the public perception. In our view, the ICO and the Tribunal should have no hesitation in upholding public authorities which invoke s.14(1) in answer to grossly excessive or ill – intentioned requests and should not feel bound to do so only where a sufficient number of tests on a checklist are satisfied.
As an American, I was struck by the first sentence. In the South, after the American Civil War, black men and women were denied the vote because of segregationist (racist) policies. One particular reason for denying black Americans after the American Civil War their civil rights, such as the right to vote was the idea that blacks would be “irresponsible” with their rights. They would “abuse” their rights. Before the Civil War, they were denied any rights under the Bill of Rights in Dredd Scott v Sandford.
To keep the black American from exercising their rights, opponents such as Bull Connor used violence, intimidation, and laws. The Civil Rights Act fulfilled America’s promise and brought equality of rights.
We, the people possessing and using those rights, are being told in this ruling that if we exercise our rights in ways that the powerful find irritating they will be taken away from us. If we use our rights in ways that the government does not like, they will be taken away.
If this was Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Putin’s Russia, we could believe such statements would be made. What is astounding is that the gravest threat to our rights in the United Kingdom is not a tyrannical government. It is not a surveillance state of unchecked power and scope. Instead, the greatest threat to our rights is citizens exercising those rights.
These rights are enshrined in the Human Rights Act, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and they are rights that go back to the Magna Carta. Yet, if you exercise them in ways that displease the powerful, they will be taken away.
As a resident, and a foreigner, it frightens me when those in power can say that you “the citizen” are endangering your rights by exercising them in a way that annoys those in power. When an unelected official nominally responsible for upholding legal rights makes judgements like this, one wonders whether any rights can be protected. They can be protected so long as the powerful are not irritated.
If judges or tribunal are not going to stand up for your rights, who will? Who will protect your right to free expression? Your right to privacy, your right to be free from torture? In the United Kingdom there is no bill of rights enshrined to protect the person. If you use your rights in ways that annoy the powerful, then they will be taken away.
Will your right to vote be taken away? Are you “abusing” your right to vote if it inconveniences those in power? The Tribunal’s approach to those who wanted to exercise their democratic rights has the same chilling effect even if it is slightly more “civilised”.
What is to be done?
I urge all UK residents to exercise their civil rights and do the following.
- Submit a freedom of information request to their local authority or the central government. Use whatdotheyknow.com
- Write to their MP, using this link, to ask them to defend citizen’s civic rights and defend FOIA
Exercise your rights now before they are taken away!
- Early Morning April 4: Today Marks 44 Years Since The Death Of MLK Jr. (tinfoilhatman45.wordpress.com)