BBC BLOGS - dot.Rory
« Previous | Main | Next »

Twitter and Scientology: Don't use the 'S'-word

Rory Cellan-Jones | 14:49 UK time, Tuesday, 20 July 2010

When he walked past a Scientology centre on a trip to London last year, a councillor from Cardiff cannot have expected that his reaction would end up fuelling another big hoo-hah over free speech on the internet.

Nor that it would end up with him being hauled up in front of his council's ethics committee.

But Councillor John Dixon's mistake was to go on Twitter and say this:

"I didn't know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."

Somehow this was spotted by a member of the organisation and in due course a complaint was made to the Ombudsman for Public Services in Wales.

The watchdog has partially upheld the complaint; to be more precise, it has found there is a case to answer under the code of conduct for councillors and has passed the matter on to Cardiff City Council's Standards and Ethics Committee.

So it seems Councillor Dixon has joined the growing list of politicians who have found that careless tweets can damage their careers. 1-0 to the Scientologists, then?

Not so fast. When news of the case erupted on Twitter this morning, it rapidly became a cause celebre - or rather a cause for mockery of Scientologisty.

Prominent members of the Twitterati - a crowd which includes many who are free-thinkers sceptical about religion in any form - started retweeting Councillor Dixon's original remark. Very rapidly, the term #stupidscientology became a trending topic on Twitter.

Now there are all sorts of lessons one could draw from this affair - about the dangers of social networking for politicians, the perils of taking on Twitter, the advisability of spending many hours and presumably a lot of public money investigating whether the word "stupid" is sufficiently offensive to constitute a breach of a code of conduct.

But, rather than face being hauled up in front of an ethics committee myself, I think I will allow you to draw your own conclusions.


  • Comment number 1.

    Wouldn't Scientologists have to prove that their 'religion' is not in fact stupid?

  • Comment number 2.

    Good luck with THAT then, bit like trying to prove the Pope is not the head of the catholic church neh?

  • Comment number 3.

    Are politicians now not allowed to hold or express opinions?

  • Comment number 4.

    So the cult of Scientology is all upset. What a shame. Perhaps the councillor could ask them if they are a religion why do their leaders get commissions on donations? Sounds more corporate to me...

  • Comment number 5.

    Stupid people...

  • Comment number 6.

    Intimidation is one of the cult's favoured weapons. The councillor should be ready for more of this. Hopefully the Met Police will not allow their officers to be bought by the cult like they have in Clearwater, Florida.

  • Comment number 7.

    "But, rather than face being hauled up in front of an ethics committee myself, I think I will allow you to draw your own conclusions."

    Scientology is stupid.

  • Comment number 8.

    Isn't it correct to say that Scientology is not recognised as a religion in the UK? If so, how would this possibly break any laws restricting free speech in the matter of religion?

    In the words of a BBC News report, a judge in 1984 characterised the Church of Scientology as "corrupt, sinister and dangerous".

  • Comment number 9.

    I think the same thing whenever I walk past any temple. Luckily religious faith isn't contagious once you have been vaccinated with a dose of critical thinking and a basic understanding of science with some knowledge of history. A booster shot of understanding human susceptibility to logical fallacies and personal bias should complete the immunisation to supernatural

  • Comment number 10.

    Why is this in a technology blog?

    This really has nothing to do with twitter or the internet at all. This is simply a case that when in public office you have a duty to behave in a certain way when you open your mouth in public; which is why there is a code of conduct. This councillor may have broken those rules - it is as simple as that.

    Hardly a technology story then - it should be moved to politics/local government (does such a section exists?) or near equivalent.

  • Comment number 11.

    Google the term "vexatious litigation." It's a useful term in this scenario. The first example under "notable vexatious litigants" is..... The Church of Scientology!!

    "Plaintiffs (Scientologists) have abused the federal court system by using it, inter alia, to destroy their opponents, rather than to resolve an actual dispute over trademark law or any other legal matter. This constitutes 'extraordinary, malicious, wanton and oppressive conduct.' As such, this case qualifies as an 'exceptional case' and fees should be awarded pursuant to the Lanham Act... It is abundantly clear that plaintiffs sought to harass the individual defendants and destroy the church defendants through massive over-litigation and other highly questionable litigation tactics. The Special Master has never seen a more glaring example of bad faith litigation than this." (RTC v. Robin Scott, U. S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 85-711-JMI (Bx) 85-7197-JMI (Bx), January 20, 1993, Memorandum of Decision).[24]

  • Comment number 12.

    The *ahem* Church of Scientology deems it necessary to serve legal proceedings on individuals they deem as affecting their public credibility. No doubt they do not have humility written into their moral guidance and do have a lot to protect their "corporate" image. I haven't seen Archie of Canterbury employing lawyers to punish other public servants on their utterances.

  • Comment number 13.

    Scientology IS stupid, though

  • Comment number 14.

    Ugh Rory you coward...I thought a public figure like you would have the guts to stand up to such an aggressive, litigious organisation! Anderson Cooper in the States did! And John Sweeney.

    I'm hoping that the Church of Scientology will spend all of their funds trying to sue all of the people that they've identified on Twitter as suppressive and bankrupt themselves. And that will be karma as they so aggressively go after anyone who they deem critical. They couldn't have less of a sense of humour or be a more intolerant "religion"!

  • Comment number 15.

    Wouldn't it be best if that nice Mr Clegg could remove all these quasi autonomous non-governmental organisations that have nothing better to do that haul some innocent councillor over the coals for doing nothing more than tweeting what the rest of us consider to be a valid and considered opinion about the "church" of Scientology.

    How much are these quango's costing us?

  • Comment number 16.

    the church of sciantology I thought this had been declered illegal years ago.

  • Comment number 17.

    Why is this in a technology blog?

    Because it's a story about the social impact of technology. Pre-twitter the councillor would have made his remark to a physically or socially local circle of people and the Scientologists wouldn't have heard about it, and even if they had it wouldn't have been considered a matter for the standards board.

    Now, technology is helping to blur the boundaries between public and private and there's often no clear distinction between things said in a professional or a private capacity. That causes interesting problems when people attempt to apply professional standards to everything.

    Furthermore, the 'About this blog' box in the upper right corner of the page describes this blog as being "about how technology is changing our lives"; it's not a 'hard' tech blog.

    Clear now?

  • Comment number 18.

    I expect that by the morning there will be many pro scientology comments here as there PR machine kicks in.

  • Comment number 19.

    "corrupt, sinister and dangerous" - yep, someone in the church of Scientology is making loadsa money - they're not stupid.

    Its the people that join - beats me why they do it!

  • Comment number 20.

    The world of political conflict has lead to a situation where everything is viewed as offensive to someone. Usually taken out of context and someone saying "I think it means..." and because they wish to say that is what it means to them the offense is somehow justified. A monk once told me that there are 6.5 billion people in the world and they all see it through their own eyes, so how can that world be? The media will take any statement of being offended and see how long the public will chat about it. It beats having to come up with a real story. Everyone wants honest public figures but of course they can't say anything.

  • Comment number 21.

    It's hardly the first time that the Church of Scientology have rubbed up the technorati the wrong way. In 2008 the church tried to have an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise being interviewed removed from youtube and various other sites. This so enraged some "anonymous" members of the 4chan image boards that a campaign of denial of service attacks and demonstrations outside the church's premises was launched.

    I would have thought that this would have taught the scientologists (and other groups and quasi-religions) that messing with the forces of the interwebs never has happy ending.

  • Comment number 22.

    Bang on intolerance with more intolerance? Seems stupid to me - kind of like why religion of one sort of another is at the centre of so many conflicts. I guess its why religion and politics are not really popular topics for dinner party conversation, except amongst good friends who have discussed them at depth and know where each other stand.
    But then how are we meant to dig down to that level if we dont get to discuss things openly.
    Yes, it does all seem very stupid.

  • Comment number 23.

    If it is stupid to believe a galactic warlord blew up millions of people with bombs in volcanoes and their dead spirits cling to people and give them a bad life then Scientology is stupid.
    I think I just answered the question then.

  • Comment number 24.

    Apparently the stupid did rub off on the Ombudsman for Public Services in Wales...

  • Comment number 25.

    I happen to object to him calling them stupid, stupidity is harmless on it's own. Evil, Dangerous, Manipulative, Immoral, Corrupt, Abusive, Unethical, Wicked, Deplorable and Reprehensible would all be more suitable.
    Of course if I was a public figure I wouldn't be able to say this, poor people, clearly they void their rights of free speech when it comes to nonsensical cults based on the SCI-FI writings of a "pathological liar". Silly me.

  • Comment number 26.

    it is obvious that a secretive and stupid cult would seek to extort all their intimidation to try to surpress the truth

    want to get to OT8 ?

    i thought not... to do so would be stupid!!!

  • Comment number 27.

    Rory Cellan-Jones.

    let's hope that John Dixon doesn't find himself in need of a "panic room", the actions of irrational people are hard to predict.

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    "18. At 5:51pm on 20 Jul 2010, Kit Green wrote:
    I expect that by the morning there will be many pro scientology comments here as there PR machine kicks in."

    That depends on how popular this gets. They do appear to have finally figured out that jumping on everything can make their problem worse (their problem being the truth about them coming to light). If it gets too popular I am sure the East Grinstead boys and girls will pop by to say hello.

  • Comment number 30.

    I suppose the good councillor and other public servants are not the only ones who need to consider new technology and how it affects our world. ^^

  • Comment number 31.

    The Public Service Ombudsman for Wales appears to be out of control at the moment, because its set up allows vested interests to attack any local politician who they see as stepping out of line. In Ceredigion, councillors have in effect been banned from talking about a development in Cardigan by the system. This disturbine case again highlights the need for root and branch reform of this system.

  • Comment number 32.

    "9. At 4:27pm on 20 Jul 2010, youarenumbersix wrote:
    I think the same thing whenever I walk past any temple."

    At least the religions allow their teachings to be read free of charge and in many cases free copies are given out.

    Unlike the Cult holding copyright on its 'teachings' and insisting on squeezing every penny out of people.

  • Comment number 33.

    Apparently the allegation is that using "stupid" in relation to scientology is a breach of the duty to treat others with respect and consideration. If this is upheld, councillors will either not be able express strongly held views at all or will have to hide them behind diplomatic circumlocutions.
    If the Coalition means what it says about restoring freedom they need to make freedom of expression a right that trumps respect and consideration. I'm not saying its acceptable to offend others just for the sake of it but if you can't use the word stupid for something of public interest that you strongly believe is stupid it's the end of free speech

  • Comment number 34.

    I think the moral of this story is that if you are a big organisation and you act stupidly, then Twitter makes it more likely that your stupidity will be widely reported.

    Journalists are probably afraid of writing that Scientology is stupid (as Rory seems to be), in case they get sued. But even Scientologists and their huge army of corporate lawyers can't sue every Twitter user who used the term #stupidscientology.

    I was a bit cynical about Twitter at first, but I'm beginning to see that it is actually a really powerful tool for promoting free speech.

    And while we're on the subject, anyone who isn't familiar with #gillianmckeithhasnophd is in for a real treat if they wish to read about it.

  • Comment number 35.

    Free speech vs. the nanny state.

    Just imagine a world where there was actual free speech, without nanny there to remind us that what is said may insult someone somewhere.

    A bunch of people create a false religion that takes offense at anyone who says anything bad about them.

    So if I say I am a follower of the flying spaghetti monster, and people eating spaghetti offends my religion, does that mean eating spaghetti will be banned?

    I hope so.

    If politicians and people in power were actually able to say what they mean and think, we might be able to elect people who do what they say and actually represent what we want, instead of saying what everyone wants to hear, or more sinisterly saying what will get them most votes. A lot more people would likely vote if there was more honesty in politics. Someone with a view to the future, not to the next 4 years in office.

  • Comment number 36.

    Scientology is simply a piramid Scheme for the weak and vulnerable (like most religions in my opinion) only this group has turned their "religion" into a huge profiting corporate giant, given they get tax relief in most countries around the world.

    However, I feel strongly that people have the right to believe in what they want, providing they except that other people may not think or believe what they do, and they should not be trying to brainwash, recruit, or preach their so called faith on to others outside of their designated places of warship.

    Region has always been the binding force to control, law/order, explanation AND CURRUPTION, and has lead to more loss of life then anything else humanity has ever seen.

    I personally feel we've evolved to no longer need religion and posses the ability to better ourselves and live a happy and fulfilled life on our own merit without the need for fictitious supreme beings that so called decide if we've been naughty or nice when we arrive at the perly gates to get 72 virgins after playing chess with mozart and einstein..

  • Comment number 37.

    The councillor was right when he said Scientology is a daft and stupid 'religion'. I also think tweeting/twating (or whatever you call it) is for kids and not adults. Twitter is a phenomenom like many dotcoms in the late 90's or early noughties. It will fade and die out within 2yrs tops.

  • Comment number 38.

    It is sad that a person of such position and educational level carelessly took to Twitter and posted a statement that was neither sound nor well thought of. The issue is that people involved in public service should be careful of what they say at all times whether it is offline or online. I am curious to know just how much Mr. Councilor knew about CoS as well, (there's more to CoS than what we read from naysayers online) because for anybody, speaking definitively without real knowledge and background is actually the stupid thing. As a rule of thumb it is not very smart to bash a religious or cultural group especailly when you are a "public servant."

  • Comment number 39.

    "Somehow this was spotted by a member of the organisation"

    Scientology has a CIA-like division call the Office of Special Affairs, they have people patrolling and trying to police the Internet, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
    Of course they deny this but Scientology has no charitable activities so they have a lot of free time.

  • Comment number 40.

    #38 "there's more to CoS than what we read from naysayers online"

    Indeed. The naysayers barely cover it. Also the trail of ruined lives and corpses the cult leaves behind does not tend to attract as much attention as you would expect it to. As others have said...a rather litigious bunch. They put a lot of effort into keeping their dark secrets just that.

    The best person to trust is yourself. Look at the original documents around the cases, watch the evidence, listen to those who have been involved and make up your own mind. The new technologies are a great way to uncover the truth. Good place to start is the name Lisa McPherson (do not look at any pictures if you are the queasy type) as she has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the cult. Accusations and rebuttals will flow from there.

    Twitter, Google, YouTube, etc. The truth is getting easier to find for those who wish to look.

  • Comment number 41.

    Certainly Germany doesn't recognise scientology as a 'religion' and I think France is the same, but I think the UK does still recognise the cult as a religion for some reason!
    I wonder if the problem isn't partly that the established 'religions' might, quite rightly, feel that if the torch of reason is shone too brightly on scientology that some of that light might reflect badly on their own sky-faeries!

    Isn't it time we stopped pandering to religions, and scientology, with tax breaks and whatnot? Why should such organisations be allowed to accrue wealth tax free in these enlightened times?
    I'd leave the tax free status for charities, and any charitable works undertaken by _any_ organisation, be they religious, or indeed scientology, based should also be tax free.

  • Comment number 42.

    Andy Wood #41.

    "Isn't it time we stopped pandering to religions, and scientology, with tax breaks and whatnot? Why should such organisations be allowed to accrue wealth tax free in these enlightened times?"

    if only it stopped at 'tax breaks'. our current (and future) problems are much deeper because of the way our children will be indoctrinated:

    "Faith schools are likely to boom, in this most secular of nations ... So far 273 faith schools are bidding to become academies, free to teach creationism or any nonsense they like."

  • Comment number 43.

    Can Scientology honestly be classified as a religion? After all, it was created by a writer of science fiction?

  • Comment number 44.

    The real problem isn't with the Church of Scientology. One would expect them to complain. They're known as a particularly humourless organisation. It's with the Ombudsman for Public Services in Wales, who needs to develop a sense of proportion. If he considers this to be sufficiently serious to merit reporting to the council's ethics committee, I'd say he's endangering his own credibility. When he comes across something really serious, people who've read this story will shrug and say, "There he goes again".

  • Comment number 45.

    I have a bet that Scientology becomes the first 'listed' religion on the stock market

  • Comment number 46.

    No. 38 "speaking definitively without real knowledge and background"

    I speak with the real knowledge and background of seeing my sister's life ruined by this so-called "religion". She was picked up at a time when she was very vulnerable by their use of hypnosis and psycho-analytic techniques, has had two mini strokes, and is suffering from nervous and physical breakdown. It is impossible to reason with her due to the brainwashing used by this cult. They have also taken all her savings, she has sold her car ... etc. If twitter or any other social network is capable of spreading information about this terribly dangerous cult and saving someone's life, that would be wonderful. I fear that for my sister it is already too late ...

  • Comment number 47.

    More Twittertwaddle.

  • Comment number 48.

    @38 Don't worry, you'll beat those Thetans.

  • Comment number 49.

    @38. At 6:48pm on 21 Jul 2010, Postgirl101

    Not a champion of free-speech, are you?

    If you can't speak you mind, what's the point in having a mind?

  • Comment number 50.

    Of course scientology is stupid. When I was a scientist in the Antarctic in 1983 I had the privilige of meeting SF author Robert Heinlein who visited our base while on a cruise with his wife Victoria. He personally confirmed that scientology was invented by Ron Hubbard as the result of them betting each other that they could start a religious cult within a year. Hubbard invented scientology, and Robert wrote "Stranger in a Strange Land". Hubbard won the bet. Scientology was DESIGNED to be stupid!

  • Comment number 51.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 52.

    The general view within Scientology is that 'everyone is a criminal'.
    They will stalk anyone who upsets them to work out that individuals past crimes and then exploit it.
    The councillor's Tweet is a very small crime but they jumped on board fast and now he's going to suffer for making one joke.


  • Comment number 53.

    I think you may be missing the point. All religion is based on intimidation and fear, either it is fear of god, fear of hell or fear of being followed by a guy in a black SUV. It's all made up so there is no reason to get all worked up about it, it's the same as being annoyed about Harry Potter.

  • Comment number 54.

    Its a shame this blog isn't more prominent. The church of 'scaminology' needs to be shown up for what it is; a money making farse of a cult who will rather litigate, than justify, to defend its position.

    For once Twitter has done something useful rather than spout nonsense. What is amusing to me is that Twitter users' actions aren't too disimilar to 4chan's! Now there is a topic!

  • Comment number 55.

    All free speech is an absolute and the Internet makes it so. Those who deny this simply aren't aware that the global scope of the technology makes all local laws and customs restricting free speech (including sub judice laws and libel law) an exercise in utter futility.

    This new reality hasn't quite filtered through to mainstream culture just yet but it will and the society or country in question will simply have to adapt or find that their laws regarding free speech will become an unenforcable irrelevance.

    China and Iran are only just beginning to understand the impossibility of censoring the Net and since the technology is not going to disappear then it is fair to say that we are all going to have to get used to living in world where people can freely express themselves without any restrictions.

    Welcome to the 21st Century.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.