Fears of new threat to freedom of speech

Published 28 November 2013  |  
PA

Carol singers, buskers, and street evangelists could be targeted if a new law designed to fight anti-social behaviour goes through.

The legislation involves the deployment of "injunctions to prevent nuisance or annoyance" or IPNAs which ministers claim will be easier to acquire than ASBOs as they require less evidence.

The Home Office says measures contained in the bill are aimed specifically at providing better protection for victims and communities. The law is currently being debated in the House of Lords.

However, the proposed injunctions have prompted criticism from a wide spectrum of political pressure groups, including Big Brother Watch, the Christian Institute, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, the Evangelical Alliance, and the National Secular Society.

The central problem with the law, according to opponents, is the lack of a clear definition as to what constitutes 'nuisance' or 'annoying' behaviour.

Campaign group Reform Clause 1 - which goes by the slogan "feel free to annoy me" - has been formed to fight this particular legislation.

It described the bill as too sweeping, claiming it will have a "chilling effect on free speech".

The group has published legal advice from Lord MacDonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, who said that the safeguards to protect the system from abusive use were "shockingly low" and that the law represented "serious and unforeseeable interferences in individual rights, to the greater public detriment".

The advice from Lord Macdonald says: "A lone individual standing outside the entrance to a bank holding a sign objecting to its role in the financial crisis, a busker outside a shopping centre, or a street preacher proclaiming the end of days to passers-by may all be capable of causing nuisance and annoyance to some person. The question is whether they should be subject to such broad legislative intervention as is proposed in this Bill."

Simon Calvert, the campaign group's director and a member of the Christian Institute, said that anyone from pastors to protesters and even people merely expressing unpopular opinions in public could be under threat as a result of this law.

"This is a crazy law," he said. "It will not deter thugs and hooligans who are normally already breaking lots of other laws anyway… But it will give massive power to the authorities to seek court orders to silence people guilty of nothing more than breaching political correctness or social etiquette."

The Christian Institute's Mike Judge agreed that the threshold for evidence was "too low" and the safeguards "too weak".

"[This law] could end up catching legitimate protesters and street evangelists," he warned.

It is not only Christians who are challenging the law. Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said it was a "draconian" piece of legislation that "could be applied to ordinary people from football fans to political campaigner".

The IPNAs are intended to replace ASBOs, which have been criticised over the years for excessive application.

In 2005, a 27-year-old mother-of-two from Scotland received an ASBO that threatened her with jail if she continued to answer the door or be seen at either her window or in the garden wearing only her underwear, while one 50-year-old man from Manchester was banned from claiming anyone is "involved in suspicious activity and drug dealing".

The Reform Clause 1 website lists a number of potential victims of the new law who may be penalised for behaviour simply because some find it disagreeable.

They cite a street evangelist named only as John who operates in Trafalgar Square: "He tells passers-by that they should trust in Jesus to forgive their sins and lead a life based on kindness and love. He believes he is doing the right thing by making people aware of the teachings of the Bible… But if Westminster Council thinks passers-by could feel 'annoyed' by his words, John could have his right to free speech curbed. He could be subject to a court order prohibiting him from preaching in the area."

Other potential victims included a children's football team in the village of Swinton, where the local pitch borders a group of houses; protesters labelling Scientology a dangerous cult; the bell-ringers of Great Barfield Church; and gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who has led vocal protests in the past about the treatment of LGBT people by Islamic governments.

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