Report No. 101
5.3. Illustrative case.-
In this context, it is particularly relevant to mention a very well known case decided by the House of Lords1 which is the leading case on the subject of blasphemous libel. We are not concerned herewith details of the legal propositions canvassed in that case as to the precise scope of blasphemy. What is of immediate relevance is the fact that the defendant in that case was a company limited by guarantee.
The defendant corporation in this case was a legatee under a will. The plaintiff challenged the validity of the bequest, on the ground that the object for which the defendant was established, were unlawful. The spread of secularism was the dominant object of the defendant company (as stated in its memorandum of association). The specific question that was debated at length, and examined with great learning by the House of Lords, was, whether denial of Christianity was, in itself, blasphemous. The House held that it was not, unless the preaching was accompanied with something vile, indecent or ribaldrous. The actual discussion is fairly elaborate, but only the gist thereof has been mentioned above.
Christianity, it was held, was not a part of English Common law. The proceedings failed because the plaintiff could not prove that the objects of the defendant corporation were, in law, blasphemous. Accordingly, the relief sought was not granted, and legality of objects of the defendant corporation was upheld. This conclusion could have been arrived at only on the assumption that if a particular preaching is not prohibited by a specific rule of law, then a corporation can engage itself in it, by virtue of the general freedom of expression available under the ordinary law. In other words, there was an implicit recognition by the House of Lords of the principle that a corporation can make or publish any statement which does not violate a specific prohibitory rule of law. In effect, this approach equates natural and artificial persons for the purpose of the right in question.
1. Bowman v. Secular Society, 1917 AC 406 (House of Lords).