The state’s crackdown on street preachers

Mar 17, 2023 by

by Andrew Tettenborn, spiked:

Time and again, preachers are being arrested and silenced under Britain’s draconian hate-speech laws.

A lot has changed over the past 100 years in the battle for free speech. Where blaspheming against God could once land you in trouble with the law, today it is often those with strong religious convictions who are having their collars felt – especially street preachers, who seem to continually fall foul of modern Britain’s hate-speech laws. Last week, they won a small legal victory, but the fight is far from over.

[…]  While these wins are welcome, Britons are still not entirely free to speak their minds or preach in public. For one thing, it’s still far too easy to convict people on the basis that someone somewhere would prefer to shut them up. As the law stands, you can be found guilty of intentionally causing distress if you know that causing distress is a very likely result of what you’re going to say. McConnell seems to have got off by satisfying the court that he was so in his own world that he did not realise this. So, those who are aware of the effect their words might have, but are determined to say what they think regardless, may not be so lucky. And intent is not always relevant anyway: saying something merely likely to cause distress can still land you with a £1,000 fine, whatever you intended, provided only that a bench of magistrates considers your words to be ‘abusive’. ‘Abusive’ could mean almost anything, and it could certainly cover any hard-hitting comment on religion or sexuality.

Another problem is that the police still regularly intervene against street preachers they disapprove of and threaten them with arrest if they don’t stop. To make such threats, the police don’t need to prove a crime has been committed. They only need reasonable grounds for suspecting a crime. They would prefer not to argue about technical matters concerning the law on free speech, instead they tell errant speakers that if they don’t shut up, they’ll be carted off and they can then have the argument in court. Whatever the local bench says later, the effect on free speech is much the same – a speaker arrested is a speaker silenced. After all, no street preacher wants to have to appear in court, even if he or she will be eventually cleared.

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