I just read the following in an article in The Guardian (emphasis mine):

In prison they met their co-defendant Rahman, 32, one of nine men prosecuted in connection with a plan to attack the London stock exchange, who was serving five years for owning copies of an al-Qaida magazine. On the witness stand, Hussain said Rahman was “domineering, paranoid, weird and had a lot of contact with MI5”.

Is there really any law that makes it illegal to own copies of a publication? We punish thoughtcrime, these days? Is this an error in the newspaper or is there actually a law that permits people to be prosecuted (and even jailed for years!) for simply possessing a document?

Please note that I am not asking about cases where the possession of the document was presented as evidence of someone's worldview when they have been caught committing a crime. I am asking if the possession of a document1 can ever be considered criminal.

1Obviously, I am not talking about stolen documents or even certain classes of pornography whose very existence (photographs) implies an illegal act took place.

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    Um. Possession of a physical object isn't a thought crime. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 21:12
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    @DavidRicherby yes, that's a bit unclear. I was assuming the magazine in question is some propaganda rag. It might be indicative of someone's plans to commit an act of terrorism but I have trouble seeing how possessing it, without actually having committed any such act, could be a crime. owjburnham's answer makes some very good points though; I'll have to read it carefully and rethink this.
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 21:25
  • Obviously I'm drawing an extreme here, but would you also consider be imprisoned for owning a child pornography magazine a thought crime?
    – Tom Bowen
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 7:39
  • @Tom.Bowen89 please read the question again; including the footnote.
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 7:39
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    @DavidRicherby oh, you've read it then? Should you be put in jail now? How about everyone in the US that reads magazines like Guns and Ammo (or whatever it's called). And encouraging someone to commit a crime is not the same as committing one. Yes, I know many countries now make that illegal and no, I do not agree with it but can we please stop obsessing about that one phrase in the question?
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 8:50

2 Answers 2


"Is there really any law that makes it illegal to own copies of a publication?"

I couldn't find exact confirmation of which law Rahman was prosecuted under, but an article from 2012 describes it as "possessing an article for a terrorist purpose". A BBC article from 2007 uses the same phrase, with regard to "Section 57 of the Terrorism Act", which appears to refer to the Terrorism Act 2000:

57 Possession for terrorist purposes.

(1)A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.

(2)It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that his possession of the article was not for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.

(3)In proceedings for an offence under this section, if it is proved that an article—

(a)was on any premises at the same time as the accused, or

(b)was on premises of which the accused was the occupier or which he habitually used otherwise than as a member of the public,

the court may assume that the accused possessed the article, unless he proves that he did not know of its presence on the premises or that he had no control over it.

(4)A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable—

(a)on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 15 years,* to a fine or to both, or

(b)on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum or to both.

*Interestingly, the maximum term of imprisonment appears to have originally been 10 years, but was increased in 2006.

That law's not specific to publications, but in an attempt to answer your question more fully there does seem to be at least one law that "makes it illegal to own copies of a publication": the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, for example, renders possession of 'extreme pornography' illegal, and the definitions do not require (to reference your footnote) that the materials "imply an illegal act took place". Rather, the materials are illegal because (to quote a government consultation, via the Wikipedia page linked above)

such material may encourage or reinforce interest in violent and aberrant sexual activity to the detriment of society as a whole

That may or may not bother you from a freedom of speech point of view, but it leads me nicely onto a discussion of the underlying ethics/morality/rights debate that you impled in your question:

"We punish thoughtcrime, these days?"

As far as I understand, Rahman was in physical possession of the magazine. So no – not "thoughtcrime". Merely thinking about the magazine – or believing the views expressed in its contents – would not, of itself, be illegal. Indeed, as the article points out in its description of main case under discussion (i.e. the "Three Musketeers" case, not Rahman's prior conviction),

the prosecution described as the defendants’ “hateful beliefs” – but the judge, Mr Justice Globe, told them they could not convict based on “mindset evidence” alone.

However, like hate speech (speech, not thought), or conspiracy to commit a crime (which is what the men in the Three Musketeers case were being charged with), saying (or writing) certain things is, quite reasonably, illegal, if the intent of those words is incitement to commit a crime.

Restrictions on free speech exist everywhere, and any (political) debate around it generally centres less on an absolute right to free speech, and more on where the line should be drawn. Even in the US – which tends to draw the line at the permissive end of the spectrum – speech intended solely to cause damage is not immune from reproach. The classic example is "[falsely] shouting fire in a crowded theater":

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger

Similarly, the publication of a magazine, the sole purpose of which is to (inspire or facilitate) damage, can be illegal. It would then seem reasonable for supplying that magazine to others to be illegal. Possession with a clear intent to supply (like with drugs) would also, reasonably, be illegal. And if drug possession, with no intent to supply, can be illegal, then why not possession of illegal material, even if there's no intent to supply?

I make no attempt here to justify (nor even to outline fully) the exact details of English law when it comes to these matters; however, there's an important distinction between freedom of speech (with regard to which nearly everyone accepts some restriction or regulation) and freedom of thought or conscience. To the best of my knowledge, there's no law (in Britain) that restricts either of those.

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    @terdon Possession of a physical object is not a thought. Outlawing possession is not outlawing thought. There is no thought crime here. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 8:45
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    @DavidRicherby if the only reason the object is illegal is because it supports a certain theological, political, even outright criminal position, then making possessing it illegal is indeed tantamount to punishing thought. All I can do with it is read it and making that illegal is legislating what I can and cannot read and think about. In any case, I do wish you wouldn't fixate on one sentence of my question. The law is more nuanced than that, as it should be, and also requires intent to commit a crime.
    – terdon
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 8:48
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    @terdon No, you can still think about whatever you want. It is not your thoughts that are being punished but the physical inspirations for those thoughts. Outlawing drugs doesn't make it illegal to think about being high; outlawing terrorist propaganda doesn't make it illegal to think about being a terrorist. I focused on possession of a physical object because you talked about it again in the first few words of the comment I was replying to: you keep making the same mistake, so I keep correcting it. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 8:53
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    @David Re thought crime: terdon has a point: the difference between a book whose possession is allowed and one whose possession is forbidden is only the thoughts it contains (if we entertain the concept that a book's contents is written-down thoughts). The law acknowledges that; it demands that the book's possession has a forbidden purpose. This falls in line with other "thought crimes": If I threaten to kill somebody I may be put under a restraint order etc., without ever having "done" something. Of course the law is terribly vague: "reasonable suspicion"!? We used to need proof to convict. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 9:51
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    "Thoughtcrime [...] A crime committed by having unorthodox, unofficial, controversial or socially unacceptable thoughts." en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/thoughtcrime
    – owjburnham
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 12:29

According to this article from the Telegraph, in February 2012, Mohibur Rahman pleaded guilty to "possession of a document containing information useful to a person preparing an act of terrorism." This appears to be a reference to Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000:

(1)A person commits an offence if—

(a)he collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or

(b)he possesses a document or record containing information of that kind.

So yes, this law does make it illegal to possess certain publications or documents.

Here is a ruling from the House of Lords Appellate Committee (2009 UKHL 13) in an earlier case involving a violation of this section, which contains further information and references on how this section can be applied. Note that it goes on for several pages; see the "continue" links at the bottom of each page.

Some people have commented below that the literal text of the law would appear to ban the possession of telephone books, street maps, chemistry texts, etc, as such documents would be likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. The Appellate Committee ruling above addresses that concern specifically in paragraphs 42 and 43, and rejects the literal interpretation, concluding that such documents do not fall within the scope of Section 58. Note that the Appellate Committee was, as of 2009, effectively the highest court in the UK, and its opinions are binding on all lower courts, so their interpretation has the force of law. (The UK court system has since been restructured, and what was formerly the Appellate Committee is now called the Supreme Court of the UK.)

  1. Obviously, on one reading, section 58(1) could cover a multitude of records of everyday common or garden information, which might actually be useful to a person who was preparing to carry out an act of terrorism - e g a Yellow Pages directory listing outlets where he could buy fertiliser and other chemicals for making into a bomb, a timetable from which he could discover the times of trains to take him to the city where he was going to plant his bomb, or an A to Z directory of that city which he could use to find his way to the target. But, rightly, appearing for the Crown, Mr Perry QC repudiated any such interpretation. Parliament cannot have intended to criminalise the possession of information of a kind which is useful to people for all sorts of everyday purposes and which many members of the public regularly obtain or use, simply because that information could also be useful to someone who was preparing an act of terrorism.

  2. Indeed, it is clear from what Lord Lloyd said in his report that the aim was to catch the possession of information which would typically be of use to terrorists, as opposed to ordinary members of the population. So, to fall within the section, the information must, of its very nature, be designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act or terrorism. Because that is its nature, section 58(3) requires someone who collects, records or possesses the information to show that he had a reasonable excuse for doing so. The information is such as “calls for an explanation", as Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers LCJ, said in R v K [2008] 2 WLR 1026, 1031, para 14. Of course, it is not necessary that the information should be useful only to a person committing etc an act of terrorism. For instance, information on where to obtain explosives is capable of falling within section 58(1), even though an ordinary crook planning a bank robbery might also find it useful.

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    Damn. The UK and the USA are definitely not the same when it comes to freedom of speech.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 16:20
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    @ohwilleke Or at least when it comes to freedom of printing. I was very pleased to discover recently that the threat of prosecution for "exporting munitions" (by writing a strong cryptography program) was (in part) defended against by MIT publishing the source code in book form because the production of books was (allegedly) more clearly protected under the First Amendment.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 16:25
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    What an unfortunate wording of the law. If somebody plans a terrorist act in London, a map of London is likely to be extremely useful to him. I wonder how intentional it was.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 17:48
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    @rumtscho: The ruling discusses this very issue. See paragraphs 42 and 43. They conclude that "...to fall within the section, the information must, of its very nature, be designed to provide practical assistance to a person committing or preparing an act or terrorism." Thus a map of London would not count. Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 18:05
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    @Magisch: The Appellate Committee was, at the time, effectively the highest court in the UK, and its decisions and interpretations are binding on all other courts. I would not regard this interpretation as "subject to change", any more so than the law itself is subject to change by legislative action. Anyhow, let us keep in mind that Law.SE is not the place for us to discuss or debate whether the law itself is good or bad. Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 6:46

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