On 1. December 1996, I spent a few hours at the Transit Hall of the Gatwick Airport (London), coming from Oviedo (Spain), where I had given a concert and going to Zurich (Switzerland) for my professional (musical) activities. I arrived in Gatwick around 1 PM and had my flight to Zurich only after 7 PM.
As a person concerned about the deadly sanctions by most governments against the Iraqi people and having written numerous papers on the subject, I felt that I could use the opportunity of spending time for a few hours in this public place to draw the attention of some fellow passengers to this matter, which the media are not willing to openly discuss. As I do not possess the means to run a newspaper or a TV station, my possibilities of reaching my fellow human beings are grossly limited to sporadic occasions where I can reach more than a handful of people.
I therefore bought some paper and scotch tape, glued together 8 A4 sheets and wrote on them:
576,000 IRAQI CHILDREN HAVE ALREADY DIED.
DON”T SAY: “I DID NOT KNOW”.
I deliberately did not mention a specific government because passengers are from all around the world and I wanted to leave it to each one to find out whether his/her government was participating in this criminal act.
After having written this, I placed this sheet beside me on another chair and went to read a newspaper. As the sheet was placed on a chair, it could only be seen by people in the vicinity of my place.
It took only five minutes for a security officer to arrive and ask me about this “poster”. He claimed that the poster was “offensive” and that I should take it “down”. I responded to him that the term “offensive” is a a subjective matter and that I, for example, find very offensive to be surrounded by commercial messages all around me in the waiting hall. He then asked whether I intended to display the “poster” in the aircraft and I said NO as I wished to act discreetly, rather than impose the poster on anyone. He then called his superior who checked my passport (for no reason whatsoever). I told both of them that I am a composer, showed them examples of my published works and emphasized that I did not intend to disturb anybody or solicit anything from anybody and that it was my right to express myself in writing. This is done by thousands of people who carry various messages on their T-shirts, plastic bags and other portable surfaces. They then left.
A few minutes later a policeman arrived and attempted to induce me to remove my “poster”. He maintained that “many people” had “complained” about this “offensive poster”. I told him that the ads surrounding me irritating to me, but that I was forced to tolerate them. He then said that offended individuals might assault me and that it is his duty to prevent assault. By
displaying my message, he said that I was provoking and inciting “disorder”. I then told him that if he really believed that my peaceful expression could cause violent and illegal behaviour by somebody, then it would be his duty to protect me and my right to free expression and not suppress it under threat of unknown parties. He then said that it was forbidden to place posters in the airport without permission. I asked about the legal base of this interdiction. He then called his superior who came finally with the airport regulations (which have the force of law) , in which it is written that it is prohibited to put up posters without permission.
Although I did not “put up” any poster nor was my “poster” intended to stay there as it was part of my personal belongings, I decided not to argue my case with the officer, folded the “poster” and put it in my bag. I also told the officer that I thanked him for permitting me to learn about the attitude of the British police towards the right to free expression, especially that he went out of his way to repress my right, knowing that I did not disturb anybody nor caused any commotion whatsoever. I also wrote down his number (he declined to give his name).
I guess that if I had written on the paper: “God bless you”, or had I placed my message on my T-shirt, the police would not have harassed me, nor invoked airport regulations to repress my right. I submit therefore that the airport police restricted unduly and in an arbitrary manner my right to place a written sheet of paper beside me on the seat and decided, designating this action as putting up a poster. It is also significant that security officers reacted very rapidly, although there was not the slightest commotion around me and hardly anybody actually seemed to read my sheet of paper. I believe that the police officer lied to me when claiming that “many people” had complained about the message. It could not have been the case, because the sheet was not visible from afar and only few people bothered to approach and read it. It is obvious that the hundreds of commercial messages imposed on the passengers in the transit area for 24 hours a day are much more obtrusive and imposing than my small sheet of paper. It was thus not the actual action I undertook that caused this reaction, but the contents of the message. This, in turn, shows that police forces are sensitized to what the ruling elite wants, and do not act impartially.
Having returned home to Iceland (where I lived at the time), I decided to document in detail this incident, as it represents in my opinion an infringement of human rights. An airport waiting hall is a public place, not a private home. A great number of people impose their messages on the captive public of the airport to sell their wares. If the systematic and large-scale imposition of commercial messages in a public place is allowed as bona fide free expression, there is absolutely no legal base to inhibit the exercise of passengers of their right to peaceful and discreet expression while dwelling in this public place for a short period of time. .
If the right to this kind of free expression is curtailed, then it would be logical for the police to prohibit from a visitor to a public park to place a message on the bank beside him under the pretext that people may not put up an “offensive poster”. I doubt that such curtailment of free expression would be lawful.