Freedom to be annoying

It is broadly accepted that for a society to be deemed ‘free’ it must protect individual rights to free speech and expression. Over recent years, however, such rights have been incrementally eroding, one restriction at a time. Now, our current government has determined to further undermine these basic freedoms. 

Not content with restricting freedom of the press, the Home Secretary has unveiled government plans to replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with a series of new civil injunctions that will clamp down on anything likely to cause “annoyance”.

As John Bingham writes in the Telegraph: 

Christian preachers, buskers and peaceful protesters could effectively be driven off the streets under draconian new powers designed to clamp on anyone deemed “annoying”, according to a former Director of Public Prosecutions.

Lord Macdonald QC said Theresa May, the Home Secretary’s plans for a new civil injunctions to replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) amount to “gross state interference” with people’s private lives and basic freedoms.

In a formal legal opinion being circulated to peers, he savages the proposals as opening the way for the outright “suppression” of anything deemed “potentially annoying” with only “vague” justification.

Lord MacDonald QC, writing in a legal opinion commission drafted for the Christian Institute, states:

The danger in this Bill is that it potentially empowers State interference against such activities in the face of shockingly low safeguards and little apparent acknowledgement of the potential effect of its provisions on the ability of citizens to exercise core rights without undue interference… 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, but the question is whether they should be subject to such broad legislative intervention as is proposed in this bill.

As I have commented here, here and here, offense routinely appears to be interpreted by police and other authorities as a justification for investigation under the Public Order Act. Despite a reform to Section 5 of the Public Order Act (see here), such continues to occur. Bizarrely, despite changing this law so as not to criminalise “insulting” words or behaviour, the government are now seeking to outlaw “annoying” words or behaviour on even more spurious grounds.

As I highlighted here, this will affect many more Christians than just those engaged in street preaching and tracting (and, whatever our views on these modes of evangelism, the restrictions on such work should still cause us concern). If “offense”, the previous watchword, has been replaced with “annoyance”, we can guarantee what begins as a clampdown on those doing evangelism outside the church will surely end up impinging on that which goes on inside the church (not least if we “do mission” inside the church and/or bill our services as “public meetings”). How long before a person “annoyed” on the street enters a church building only to be equally annoyed there? What about those parts of scripture that may be considered “offensive”; the public reading of which, and almost certainly the exposition of which, will soon be deemed both offensive and annoying?

Personally, I do not share Cranmer’s view of where he “draws the line” regarding free speech. It is my view that we already have sufficient laws against offensive and obnoxious behaviours – and that is quite right. Offensive, obnoxious or annoying words – unpleasant though they may be – should not be subject to controls. Prejudice, discrimination and incitement – whatever danger they pose – are not the heart of the issue. Individuals should be free to spout prejudice and discrimination, whatever form it takes, just as the rest of us should be free to explain in no uncertain terms why such views are vile and repugnant. Individuals should not be free to discriminate or act prejudicially but there should be no bar on these views being aired. How else can we rebuff such incoherent nonsense but for it being spoken? Similarly, incitement is not the issue. We may want to say the words of those who incite violence are so dangerous they must be curbed. But it is not the words that do the violence but those who act upon them – nobody makes anyone else do anything. If we have sufficient controls on behaviour there is no reason to place further controls upon speech.

Some may well find the activities of Christian people offensive, annoying, contentious, eccentric, heretical, unwelcome and provocative just as many Christian people may find the same of others. Surely that is the price we pay for a free society and society is all the richer for such expressions. As the Cranmer blog put it: “freedom reigns while people are at liberty to spout their views.”

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