People should be as offensive as they wish. But in Britain the police can decide whose views to ban.
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 3rd October 2006
Stephen Green represents everything most readers of the Guardian loathe. As head of the organisation Christian Voice, he sought to have Jerry Springer the Opera banned from theatres and the BBC and prosecuted for blasphemy. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, he issued a press release claiming that it was God’s judgement on the city’s celebration of “fetishism, sadism, promiscuity, indecency, obscenity and all the other tawdry aspects of homosexual life … Purity blew into New Orleans and purity broke the levees and flooded the city.”(1) He wants to re-introduce the death penalty and impose “restorative justice on the Biblical model”(2).
More entertainingly, he claims that Pakistan lost the last Test series because he prayed that God would punish Yousuf Mohammed for his conversion to Islam. “The way in which the umpires handled the initial alleged offence of tampering with the ball, and then the massive umbrage Pakistan took … is the sort of unexpected event which only Almighty God can bring about.”(3)
Yet we should be pleased that the charges he faced last week have been dropped. Stephen Green is offensive, intolerant and illiberal. But so is the law under which he was arrested.
Green had been handing out leaflets to the revellers at the Mardi Gras gay and lesbian festival in Cardiff at the beginning of September. By his standards they were pretty mild. They quoted Leviticus and Romans, compared homosexuality to incest and claimed that “By faith in Jesus it is even possible to be healed of homosexual desires. … you do have a choice as to whether you continue in a lifestyle which leads to hell, or whether you decide to put yourself right with God through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.”(4)
He was arrested and charged under the Public Order Act 1986 with using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”. On Thursday, however, the Crown Prosecution Service decided to drop the case.
It is not clear why the CPS let him go, but it is probably because it knew the prosecution would fail. Green’s leaflets, though offensive to gays and lesbians, used no threatening or abusive words, and he did nothing but seek to persuade people to take them. So it was dim of the police to have thrown the Public Order Act at him. Had they tried the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 or the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, they might have got their man.
The Protection from Harassment Act allows the Crown to prosecute anyone causing a person “alarm or distress” if this involves “conduct on at least two occasions.” Conduct, it tells us, “includes speech”(5). Under this law, in other words, it is not necessary to demonstrate “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” to secure a prosecution. If Green had tried twice to persuade the same person to take one of his leaflets, and if that person was distressed by his actions, he might have been deemed to have offended the act. If found guilty, he could have been banged up for six months and given an order preventing him from repeating the offence, at pain of five years behind bars.
The act, or so the government told us, was designed to protect people from stalkers, and this was a worthy aim. But when it was drafted, several of us warned that could just as well be used against protesters. We were ignored. The act listed defences – seeking to prevent or detect a crime or to protect yourself or your property – but protest was not one of them. Our predictions came true sooner than we imagined: the first three people prosecuted were all peaceful protesters. It is now used routinely against non-violent animal rights protesters and people demonstrating peacefully outside military bases and at arms fairs.
The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act would have been even more useful. Buried in the middle of this enormous piece of legislation, and missed by every MP who debated the bill, is a section on “harassment intended to deter lawful activities”. Under this act, the definition of a “course of conduct” is broadened to include causing alarm or distress to “two or more persons”(6). In other words, Green would only have had to approach two revellers once to have fallen under suspicion of breaching the act. It appears to have been deliberately designed to criminalise protest. “Harassment” now involves seeking “to persuade any person … not to do something that he is entitled or required to do, or to do something that he is not under any obligation to do.”(7) Again, there is no defence for peaceful protest.
This act, then, appears to permit the police to ban anyone from protesting about anything. And not just the police. “Any person who is or may be a victim of the course of conduct in question … may apply to the High Court or a county court for an injunction restraining the relevant person”. If I disagree with what you say, I could take you to court.
Luckily, the police – fuddled like everyone else by the size and complexity of the act – have not yet grasped its full implications, though they have used another of its sections, which bans us from demonstrating near parliament without their permission. But it can’t be long before they realise how powerful they have become. When they do, they will abandon the acts passed under the Conservative governments by bleeding liberal hearts like Leon Britain and Michael Howard, in favour of the much more draconian laws propelled through a dozy parliament by Tony Blair.
The irony of Stephen Green’s case is that he has sought to deny to others the freedoms he rightly claims. As well as trying to shut down Jerry Springer the Opera, he sought a prosecution for blasphemy against Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi(8), and threatened to sue Channel 4 over its plans to screen Gunther von Hagens’s (admittedly pointless and stupid) crucifixion of a corpse(9). In justifying his attack on the Jerry Springer play, he argued that “free speech is not an unqualified human right, it is limited. It brings responsibilities, and the causing of gratuitous offence is hardly the hallmark of a civilised society.”(10) If by “civilised” Green means just, he is wrong. Only just societies permit people to cause offence without fear of prosecution or punishment. Only just societies leave it to public opinion, rather than the law, to decide whether or not the offence is gratuitous. A just society is one in which Stephen Green may freely rant, however much the rest of us dislike what he has to say.
But we have no such protections here. The law permits the police to decide who may speak and what he may say. Even if they don’t secure prosecutions, they can use the new laws to shut people up and cart them away. If we object to this, what can we do? Register our protest? Only if the police allow it.
Our lazy, frightened, incompetent MPs let this legislation pass. Will they now be brave enough to call for its repeal?
George Monbiot will be launching his book Heat at 7pm on Wednesday night at the Conway Hall in London. No tickets are required.
1. Christian Voice, 13th September 2005. Purity Comes to New Orleans. Press release.
2. Christian Voice, 17th May 2005. The Queen’s Speech (as it should be!). http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/queen.html
3. Christian Voice, 21st August 2006. Prayer Scuppers Pakistan. http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/Press/press017.html
4. Christian Voice, 2nd September 2006. Same-Sex Love – Same-Sex Sex: What Does The Bible Say?
6. Sections 125-127. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/ACTS/acts2005/20050015.htm
7. Section 125 (2c).
8. Stephen Green, no date given. Corpus Christi. http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/corpus_christi.html
9. Robert Stansfield, 22nd September 2006. Crucifixion of Corpse on TV.
10. Christian Voice, no date given. Jerry Springer the Opera: What’s the background? http://www.christianvoice.org.uk/springer.html