Freedom of speech is the lifeblood of any free society. It gives individuals whatever their position or job in society, level or wealth or gender the right to speak their mind and to stand up for what they believe in, without fear of arrest. This includes the right to offend and annoy people, because freedom of speech means freedom to offend.
You would think this would be safe in a mature democracy like the UK, but unfortunately you’d be wrong. In order to protect people’s feelings, Clause 1 of the Antisocial Behaviour, Criminal and Policing bill makes it an offence and possibly a criminal offence at that to annoy people. This is because Clause 1 of the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing bill would in Clause 1 replace ASBOS with IPNAs (injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance). It is yet another example of the Government in the name of protecting people, undermining freedoms which people have fought centuries for. We cannot let this go unanswered and if you agree with me you should support the campaign to Reform Clause 1, through writing articles and blogs, utilising social media and writing to your MP. Freedom of speech is too important to be thrown away, just in case someone gets annoyed by another person’s opinion.
The problem with these new injunction powers is that it could lead to police and courts having to investigate people for annoying other people, if an individual or a public authority believes a person’s conduct is causing a nuisance or annoying someone. Of course no one should go out to be deliberately annoying, but the idea that the police and courts should have to treat incidents of annoyance as a crime is ludicrous. Police and courts already have enough to deal with. It is putting them in a position where they will have to decide whether a person’s expressions, beliefs, ideas and words are annoying. This goes dangerously close to regulating freedom of expression and speech in such a way that it could end up criminalising it.
Some of the potential victims of the clause are those we may find annoying, but in a functioning democracy we should not gag. For instance you could have preachers of whatever religion or no religion be banned from preaching their beliefs in street corners. It could lead to certain protests being cancelled, because some of the speakers annoyed members of the public. It’s no wonder the campaign has such diverse supporters as the National Secular Society, The Evangelical Alliance, The Freedom Association and the Peter Tatchell foundation amongst others. I’m sure the erosion of freedom of speech and expression for individuals is not what those who drew up Clause 1 would have wanted, but it’s the unintended consequence of a badly thought out piece of legislation.
It’s not particularly festive either. To give one example, around this time of year carol singers up and down the country will be preparing to sing from street to street often for charity, yet if some residents decide they are annoying they could end up being banned. All this shows that this clause would undermine individual’s freedom of speech and expression. That should concerns lovers of liberty across the UK.
This Coalition Government frequently speaks about its commitment to freedom. To show that this is not hot air, they should send clause 1 to the dustbin of history and in doing so score a victory for a free society that is worth fighting for.
More details about the Reform Clause 1 campaign can be found here