What changes do we want to see?
We are advocating for a free speech clause to be inserted into the laws which govern public spaces (The Public Order Act and the upcoming Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill), in order to ensure that the right to freedom of expression is duly respected and balanced against public order considerations.
Why isn't the current law protecting free speech in the public square?
71-year-old John Sherwood has been a Pastor in North London for 35 years. As part of his Christian calling, he preaches in the open air. But in May 2020, local authorities censored him for the apparent use of “abusive words” likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. “I was only saying what the Bible says – I wasn’t wanting to hurt anyone or cause offence,” refuted Sherwood. He had preached from Genesis 1:26. Male and female they created them. It’s his basis for the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman – a view held by about 1 in 5 Brits.
How have we got here?
The Public Order Act 1986 was introduced to give the police powers to tackle violent football hooliganism and riots. However, the Act is now more often used to arrest people for legitimate speech. The subjective ban on “insulting” speech was removed from the law 8 years ago, but a person is still guilty of an offence if he or she “uses threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour”.
In practice, it is very difficult for law enforcers to know what the word “abusive” is, and many street evangelists have been stopped from preaching or reading the bible on the streets because passers-by have thought that their words have been offensive and “abusive”. Regardless of tone or substance, street preachers are often arrested because of the risk that somebody in the vicinity could be offended.
What might the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill mean for free speech?
The PCSC Bill seeks to strengthen police powers to respond to public order incidents and protests.
We are concerned that the Bill could make things worse for Christians to share about their faith publicly.
The Bill, if passed today, would give police broad powers to impose conditions or arrest people if their public expression causes “serious unease, alarm or distress”, or even “inconvenience” to bystanders; concepts that are highly ambiguous and incredibly subjective. We are campaigning for clarification in this law that will emphasise the importance of protecting free speech.
What can I do?
Will you stand with us for free speech? Write to your MP to ask them to support this in parliament today!