Legal Eagle: Is it illegal to publish cartoons of Prophet Mohammed in the UK?

In the wake of the Paris terror attacks that saw 12 murdered over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, national media outlets faced a dilemma – to publish the offending drawing, or not.

The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC were among those to publish the cartoon in some form – though not in full.

However, most opted not to.  

Aside from the issue of the offence that could have caused to Muslims across the UK and beyond, would it have been legal to publish images of the cartoons?

MM have teamed up with Olliers Solicitors, a leading criminal law firm based in Manchester, to answer YOUR legal questions. 

This week, Olliers shed some light on the legality of publishing images of Mohammed.

Our reader’s question this week:

Hi, just a legal question I had, in the UK is it legal or not to publish a picture or drawing or cartoon or whatever of Mohammed?


This is an issue that has garnered significant attention over the years and especially recently following the tragic shootings at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris earlier this year.

In short, the answer is that it is not illegal in the UK to publish a picture or a drawing of the prophet Mohammed and it does not constitute any criminal offence however it is not quite as straight forward as it first appears.

Each religion has their own view on the world and some implement their own laws to govern their own societies. In the UK we all enjoy a right of freedom of speech and expression however we should also try to be conscious and respectful of beliefs that are not our own and in under Islamic law such depictions are forbidden.  

The permissibility of depictions of Mohammed in Islam is a contentious issue as whilst oral and written descriptions are readily accepted by all traditions of Islam there is disagreement about visual depictions.

The Quran does not explicitly forbid images of Mohammad, but there are a few teachings which have explicitly prohibited Muslims from creating visual depictions of human-like figures.

Historically in UK criminal law if a  picture or drawing was considered threatening, abusive or insulting then potentially an offence of incitement to racial or religious hatred could have been  made out  as a racially/religious aggravated offence under the Public Order Act.

However  Sections 5(1) and 6(4) of the Public Order Act 1986 have been amended by section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. This amendment removes the word ‘insulting’ which took effect from 1 February 2014. The effect of the amendment is that the “insulting” limb is removed from the racially or religiously aggravated version of the section 5 Public Order Act offence (i.e. the offence contrary to section 31(1)(c) Crime and Disorder Act 1998).

The amendment is intended to enhance the protection of the right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Words or behaviour that are merely ‘insulting’, or the displaying of writing, signs or other visible representations which are merely ‘insulting’, within the hearing of someone likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, will no longer constitute a criminal offence under section 5(1).

More serious, planned and malicious incidents of insulting behaviour could still constitute an offence under section 4A however. Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986.

In relation to a picture of Mohammed one would not expect this alone to constitute an offence as it may be presented in a respectful manner (although some extremists may disagree and say that any picture of the Prophet is forbidden) however if the picture was in some way disrespectful or mocking toward Islam or if it was in the form of a racist poster then it may incite religious/racial hatred.

An offence could have been committed when a person says or does something which is threatening or abusive and, by doing so, either intends to stir up racial hatred, or makes it likely that racial hatred will occur. 

This could include making a speech, displaying a racist poster, publishing offensive written material, performing a play or broadcasting something in the media.

Do you have a question for the legal team at Olliers Solicitors? 

Their specialist criminal lawyers – including a specialist motor law department – are ready to answer your questions for FREE. All you have to do is email them in to our newsdesk here: newsdesk (at) mancunianmatters (dot) co (dot) uk

You can find more about Olliers Solicitors here.



Image courtesy of Seth M, with thanks.

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