Whitehouse v Lemon; Whitehouse v Gay News Ltd: HL 21 Feb 1979

The appellants challenged their conviction for blasphemous libel. They had published a poem which described homosexual acts carried out on the body of Christ after his death.
Held: For a conviction, it was necessary to show that the defendant had published the material, and that it was of the necessary character, namely that it vilified Christ in his life and crucifixion. It was not necessary to show that the defendant intended the blasphemy. A blasphemous libel is a publication of material calculated to shock or outrage the feelings of Christians. There is no need to show additionally a tendency to cause a breach of the peace.
Lord Scarman gave the rationale for the existence of an offence of blasphemy: ‘I do not subscribe to the view that the common law offence of blasphemous libel serves no useful purpose in the modern law. On the contrary, I think there is a case for legislation extending it to protect the religious beliefs and feelings of non-Christians. The offence belongs to a group of criminal offences designed to safeguard the internal tranquillity of the kingdom. In an increasingly plural society such as that of modern Britain it is necessary not only to respect the differing religious beliefs, feelings and practices of all but also to protect them from scurrility, vilification, ridicule and contempt . . I will not lend my voice to a view of the law relating to blasphemous libel which would render it a dead letter, or diminish its efficacy to protect religious feelings from outrage and insult’


Lord Diplock, Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Edmund-Davies, Lord Russell of Killowen and Lord Scarman


[1979] 2 WLR 281, [1979] AC 617




England and Wales


AppliedRex v Shipley; Rex v Dean of St Asaph 1784
Tasks of Jury and Judge in Defamation Trial
In an action for defamation it is the jury’s task to decide whether the words were published and whether they are true. It is for the judge to decide whether the words are libellous. Lord Mansfield said: ‘The liberty of the press consists in . .
AppliedRegina v Hetherington 1841
Lord Denman CJ directed a jury on a trial for blasphemous libel: ‘Because, a difference of opinion may subsist, not only as between different sects of Christians, but also with regard to the great doctrines of Christianity itself . . even . .
AppliedRegina v Bradlaugh 1883
. .
Appeal fromWhitehouse v Lemon; Whitehouse v Gay News Ltd CA 1979
The defendants, editors and publisher respectively of ‘Gay News’ had been accused of blasphemous libel. The magazine had a poem entitled ‘The love that dare not Speak its Name’. it is not a necessary part of the offence that there should be an . .

Cited by:

CitedGreen, Regina (on the Application of) v The City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court, Thoday, Thompson Admn 5-Dec-2007
The claimant appealed from the refusal by the magistrate to issue summonses for the prosecution for blashemous libel of the Director General of the BBC and the producers of a show entitled ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera.’
Held: The gist of the . .
CitedDhir v Saddler QBD 6-Dec-2017
Slander damages reduced for conduct
Claim in slander. The defendant was said, at a church meeting to have accused the client of threatening to slit her throat. The defendant argued that the audience of 80 was not large enough.
Held: ‘the authorities demonstrate that it is the . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Defamation, Crime, Ecclesiastical

Updated: 12 May 2022; Ref: scu.174079