Seismic Shock: When blogging meets policing
Anyone who writes - or reads - blogs will know that they are not necessarily the place for reasoned and good-natured debate. All too often, they descend into vulgar abuse and name-calling - and on occasion, these disputes end up in the libel courts. But would you expect a blogger involved in one of these so-called "flame wars" to get a visit from the police?
That is what happened to the author of Seismic Shock, a blog which, in its own words, is "a voice for those dedicated to exposing and opposing modern anti-Jewish religious attitudes". The blog launched repeated attacks on an Anglican vicar, Stephen Sizer, accusing him of anti-Semitism.
The priest has campaigned against Zionism, has accused the Israeli government of war crimes and has called for the Church of England to sell its investments in companies associated with the occupation of Palesetinian territories. Mr Sizer has strenuously denied accusations on the Seismic Shock blog that he is anti-Semitic or that his pronouncements have given comfort to Holocaust deniers.
So far, so typical in the rough-and-tumble world of the blogosphere. But then, on 29 November, Seismic Shock's author received a visit from two West Yorkshire police officers. The blogger has been anonymous until now, but when I spoke to him, he agreed to reveal his name. He is Joseph Wiseman, a Leeds University graduate student, and it appears the university was unhappy with his blogging activities.
He told me that the police officers who came to his home told him they had received a complaint from Stephen Sizer and from another person - and both had objected to being associated with terrorists and Holocaust deniers. So how had they found him?
"Someone had traced my IP address to Leeds University and the police had spoken to the university and retrieved some files of mine, none of which contained anything which I hadn't made public. The police then relayed a message from the head of ICT department that I shouldn't be using university property in such ways."
The officers asked him to take down his blog, which was at that time being written partly on a university computer, and he agreed to do so. "Why?" I asked him. "I did it because I felt intimidated," he said. "I felt had to co-operate with the police."
So why did the police or Leeds University get involved in this argument? The university offered no comment, except to say that the person who knew about this issue was away on holiday. But West Yorkshire police sent me this statement:
"As a result of a report of harassment, which was referred to us by Surrey Police, two officers from West Yorkshire Police visited the author of the blog concerned. The feelings of the complainant were relayed to the author who voluntarily removed the blog. No formal action was taken."
I was unable to speak to Stephen Sizer, who is out of the country at the moment, but a parish worker told me the vicar had felt threatened by the contents of the blog.
But the whole incident raises interesting questions about the limits of free expression on the web, and the role of the police in pursuing complaints about the contents of a website.