Freedom of speech, decorum and breach of the peace

There is in the UK widespread seemingly widespread support for the monarchy.  Now, there is an important distinction between “widespread support” and “unanimous support.”  There is a significant proportion of people who would prefer the crown to be replaced with a republic. 

Readers of Faithroots will know from past articles that I sit closer to the agnostic camp on this.  I don’t think there is a perfect system. I don’t think we should assume that there will or that there must be a monarchy for ever. I think the Queen probably better understood than many that her modern role involved a level of consent and that her support was not unanimous and that probably was one of the reasons why many had the sense that the monarchy’s survival had a lot to do with her. And, hopefully we can cope with the complexities of a world where not everything is set in binary terms.

Now, given that the monarchy isn’t unanimously loved means that a period of time like this can create tensions.  There are those who react quite strongly to what they perceive the monarchy to represent and so just as many people want to declare affection for the Queen and support for the new King, there are plenty of others here, and around the world who want to object and protest.

Now, that may be difficult for some who are grieving but I think that American professors for example can write whatever they like in the New York Times.  It might be nonsensical, it might be offensive, it may lack emotional intelligence but whatever the wisdom of their actions, they are not doing anything illegal. I think a line has been crossed by some when they move into expressing a desire for harm or seek to inflame tensions and encourage criminal behaviour as when one called for things to burn.

Here in Britain, there are people who have protested in various ways over the past few days. There are different reasons. For some, there is a remaining association of the monarchy with a colonial past. There were still things happening in the early days of the Queen’s reign that put a stain on our past -particularly the response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and the mass detention of a people.  That the Queen herself did not have political power over these things, that she was still a young Queen and that her record was to oversee the move to Commonwealth may temper that but does not take away from how people feel.  Then there are those who identify the monarchy with class power and inequality, republicans who want things to change.

Steve Kneale has written here, and others have commented on social media, about why it is important that free-speech is preserved. This comment from Daniel Blanche puts it best.

And I think that many people have concluded with Daniel, that those who start yelling during a time of mourning are best treated as numpties, that rage and bitterness on banners or tweets probably tell us more about the originator than anything.  I would broadly agree with that.

I agree with Steve that we can’t expect our right to free speech to be protected and then cheer when someone else’s is denied because we disagree with them. That is so true. It is important however then to double check that this is about free speech and right to protest.

You see, a right to free speech is not in fact a right to behave how I like where I like. Supposing I disagree with my local Anglicans over paedo-baptism. My free speech permits me to do all kinds of things from writing blog articles to preaching on the subject. If I guest preach at the local parish church and speak on baptism, they may consider it rude but not really unreasonable. They can choose not to invite me back. Supposing I turned up and heckled the vicar as he was preaching (just as some have heckled at a few of the proclamations without being arrested). You might again consider that a bit rude and ungracious but probably legitimate protest and a good vicar would no doubt be able to counter. However for me to turn up at a christening with lurid protest banners and then to start to shout obscenities at the family so their children were in tears and people were frightened and for me to keep doing that when asked to leave would be unacceptable. Not only that, we would at that stage have moved beyond a lack of decorum. Most reasonable people would accept that the vicar would be within his rights to call the police. You see, we can tell that there is a difference between free speech, protest and harrasment.

Now to be clear, I’m not saying that the examples related to the monarchy this week were of that extreme. My point is simply that we can distinguish these things, even if some cases fall into grey area.

So, it is worth having a little bit more of a dig into the stories.  Let’s stick with the guy in Oxford for a moment. The story presented is that this poor guy has been arrested just for shouting out a protest. This points to a heavy handed, brutal police state. 

However, have a look at this local news report which gives only his version of events. From his perspective

  • He said something along the lines of “who elected him…” 
  • Others responded to him and he responded back
  • Security personnel then attempted to move him on his way. He resisted this.

Now, from his perspective, his engagement was peaceful and he was roughly treated. However, even within that version, questions start to arise about whether we’ve got a full and complete version of events.  Indeed, sadly experience tells me that “something along the lines of” should cause us to pause and ask “could you be a bit more specific than that. What did you actually say, what were the actual words.”  When we find that someone finds themselves suddenly and unexpectedly shouting a response, that indicates a heavy element of emotion.

It could be that others were a little bit more irate and I can well believe that security/stewards were more rough handed than needed to be. However, this might all help us to consider the possibility that the police were presented with a situation that looked a little different than the simplistic one we’ve been presented with.

In that context it’s worth looking at the measures that the police relied upon when deciding to make an arrest which was Section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986).

It says

A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a)uses threatening [or abusive] words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b)displays any writing sign or other visible representation which is threatening [or abusive],

within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

(2)An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling.

(3)It is a defence for the accused to prove—

(a)that he had no reason to believe that there was any person within hearing or sight who was likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, or

(b)that he was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe that the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed, would be heard or seen by a person outside that or any other dwelling, or

(c)that his conduct was reasonable.”

Now, just a little note on the Act itself.  The wording isn’t brilliant is it? The rather loose and subjective language of “distress” is open to a wide range of interpretation though I presume is supposed to be controlled by the framing of the impact by the action. It’s not enough for the police to think that someone is distressed. They also have to presume that the person is threatening/abusive or disorderly. 

However, what it means is that when the police rely on such a law to act, that the concern is really around a potential breach to the peace.  This means that there may well be concern that the situation could turn nasty and that this could put the physical safety and well-being of people at risk.  In fact, the result of this is that sometimes the police may act because they are concerned for the well-being and safety of the person allegedly committing the offence. It’s the easiest way of removing them safely from the scene before things get out of hand. 

I’ve actually witnessed this kind of thinking at work once. We found a guy staggering down the middle of the main road, very drunk.  He was possibly homeless. We managed to get him out of the road and called for emergency services to come and assist. The police and an ambulance turned up. Neither really wanted this to be their problem. The police wanted the ambulance to take him because he was in a sad desperate situation needing help not punishment. The paramedics argued that he wasn’t actually injured/sick in a way that necessitated urgent treatment. Actually, the officers there wanted to help and seemed moved by compassion.  In the end, because the alternative was to leave him there where he would likely cause an accident, the police arrested him and took him to spend a night in the cells sobering up.  Now, if that’s the police’s intent, things probably won’t go any further. The person is de-arrested and off they go.

Now, whether arresting under public order offences is the best thing and whether or not culpability lies elsewhere are certainly worthy of dispute. I think too we can see how such laws and powers are open to abuse.  I don’t want to ignore that point. I do want to encourage us though not to jump to conclusions about the police. I don’t have rose tinted glasses when it comes to their ability to get things wrong.  I hope that those concerned about abuse of police powers give as much attention to the shooting of Chris Kaba as they do to people being arrested and then de-arrested.  In the last week, we’ve seen a man lose a bit of his dignity in Oxford but we’ve also seen a man lose his life in London. However, whilst the Oxford and Edinburgh arrests should rightly be challenged and questioned, we can still recognise the difficult situation that the police sometimes find themselves in. There are many policemen and women seeking to carry out their responsibilities out of a sense of public duty.

I also raise this because over the past few years, we’ve increasingly heard reports about Christians being arrested for protesting or preaching.  Just the other day, there was a story running about a man who went to prison because he wouldn’t use a person’s preferred pronouns. The actual reason was that he was found in contempt of court.  And so, whilst some of those cases do show concerns about how the police are exercising their powers and applying the law, there have been a number of occasions where a careful reading of the accounts have shown that there was a little bit more going on. For example, there is a huge difference between preaching the Gospel in the open air and singling out people for their sexuality and subjecting them to an extended rant.  There were in the early church, people known as seeing it desirable to be martyred and there are at times today, people who seem to have that same desire.  It’s important then that we should have as our motives when seeking to represent Christ to bring him glory and to bring the Gospel to people.

In conclusion, yes, we need to be concerned for free speech and alert to infractions upon it.  Yes, I hope that people will exercise sensitivity and decorum. Yes, we should be able to tolerate a range of emotions and feelings. Yes I hope that the police will show sensitivity and gentleness when dealing with different reactions.  But I also would encourage us to be alert to the challenges the police face too and to be careful about making our own hasty judgements without a full picture.

Postcript 1

On one incident, a woman in Edinburgh turned up at the cortege with a banner that read “F**** Imperialism: Abolish the monarcy.” Now, there has been some debate about whether the use of a particular swear word might be deemed a breach of public order offences though at least one newspaper has insisted this wasn’t the reason for her arrest.

Indeed, if it was a case of the police attempting to calm a situation where someone had been silly or even being overzealous, we might expect things to go no further afterwards. However, it has now been reported that she must appear before magistrates.

There’s of course a big risk there that this turns the issue into a slightly bigger protest. Indeed, it would suit those on the far left to provoke a police response through low level annoyance which then becomes portrayed as heavy-handed policing and so feeds into an anti-establishment narrative building up more resentment.

So, I’m inclined to think that this wouldn’t be pursued further if the police could avoid it. This leaves me wondering if there might be a little more to the story than the minimal information we have so far.

Postscript 2

Here’s another example -and this has left me a little bit more suspicious that some of the incidents have been co-ordinated in order to provoke a heavy police response.

However, the main point I want to draw your attention to is that the protestor offers a description of a situation here:

This implies that he is pretty much innocently minding his own business when the police start threatening to arrest him.

However, he supplies his own body cam recording of the incident here.

That actually doesn’t corroberate his account. Instead what you hear is a rather flustered policeman being harassed by an agitated man. The policeman mistakenly believes the man has been arrested earlier and is attempting to do something else that may be inflammatory. It sounds as though the policeman is trying to advice him along the lines of “think carefully and don’t push your luck.”

There’s a reminder there too, that we are unlikely dealing with some co-ordinated police operation but rather with fallible individual officers making judgement calls in quite stressful contexts.

Postscript 3

If I tend to be a little wary of assuming the best of these types of protestors it arises out of personal experience of the far left. At University I was involved in mainstream student politics and was personally targeted by the far left.

My experience included being surrounded by a baying mob when I and our national chairman were recruiting members. That may be considered already crossing the line but it moved to a more personal level of harassment. My room door in halls was vandalised. If I was out and about going about my own business I might be heckled. On one occasion, I was told that I should leave town.

I also remember the same group targetting a Christian friend who attempted to engage in open air preaching. For them, it was not about free speech. They rather wanted to drown out and intimidate all other positions.

1 comment

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: