Lords reject Rusbridger's challenge to Treason Act

By Roger Pearson

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has failed in the final round of a test case battle to put ancient treason laws to the test.

A law lord said he did not believe a word of claims by Rusbridger that he could face prosecution for treason if he published articles advocating deposing the Queen.

The ruling in the House of Lords came at the end of a long legal battle waged by Rusbridger for clarification on the impact on media freedom of the Treason Felony Act 1848.

He wrote to the Attorney General announcing that The Guardian proposed to publish a number of articles which would “invite and incite support for a republican Government in the UK”.

“Their purpose and intention will be to deprive and depose Elizabeth Windsor and her successors from the style, honour and royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, although they will not advocate the use of criminal force to do so,” he said in his letter.

His letter continued that under the Treason Felony Act it appeared this could be an offence for which he could be liable to imprisonment or “transportation beyond the seas for the rest of his natural life”.

Rusbridger sought assurance that provisions of the act would be disapplied, arguing that it was “a blatant infringement of free speech”, but the Attorney General refused.

Now the House of Lords has backed the Attorney General’s decision and overturned an appeal court ruling that there should be a legal probe into the interactivity between the 1848 act and the Human Rights Act.

In rejecting the claim, one of the five law lords, Lord Scott, said: “The respondents have said that they fear that if they advocate the abolition of the monarchy and its replacement by a republic, all by peaceful and constitutional means, they may be prosecuted for treason pursuant to Section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848.

“They refer to the ‘chilling effect’ that section has upon the freedom of expression guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“I do not believe a word of it. It is plain as a pike staff to the respondents and everyone else that no one who advocates the peaceful abolition of the monarchy and its replacement by a republican form of Government is at any risk of prosecution.”

He said that everyone who read newspapers or magazines had read numerous articles and letters extolling the advantages of a republic over a monarchy and advocating change. But he said: “These articles and letters have not led to prosecution or any threat of it.”

Rounding on the time taken up by the case he said “the valuable time of the courts should be spent on real issues” reiterating that he did not believe Rusbridger’s alleged fear of prosecution.

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