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Why won’t the police leave street preachers alone?

British police are constantly arresting Christians for expressing their beliefs in public.

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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In the UK, it has become depressingly common for the police to try to silence people who express unpopular opinions – even when it is perfectly legal to do so. Thankfully, a recent legal victory offers some good news. Last week, a Christian street preacher successfully won compensation from Police Scotland for being wrongfully arrested for a homophobic ‘hate crime’.

Two years ago, Angus Cameron, an evangelical hot-gospeller, was holding forth in central Glasgow to anyone who wanted to listen. But when a passerby told police that Cameron had been using ‘homophobic’ language, officers rushed to the scene and ordered him to stop preaching. When he refused, they handcuffed the 52-year-old and stuffed him into the back of a police van. An hour later, he was released with a warning that he faced prosecution for breach of the peace. In Scotland, this is a criminal offence that can potentially cover almost any behaviour that offends someone. It carries a potential 12-month prison sentence.

Thankfully, in Cameron’s case, things didn’t turn out quite that badly. Not only was Cameron not pursued for the alleged crime, but he was also able to sue Police Scotland for wrongful arrest. Last week, the police caved in and settled the case for £5,500 in compensation and over £9,000 to cover legal costs.

This is certainly good news for free speech. Cameron’s case is the latest in a series of recent legal victories for street preachers. In 2019, preacher Oluwole Ilesanmi had a similar experience to Cameron, this time in London. Following complaints about supposed ‘Islamophobia’ in his preaching, Ilesanmi found himself summarily arrested. He was driven four miles in a police car only to then be ‘de-arrested’ and dumped at the side of the road. He only managed to get home after a kind stranger paid his bus fare. Ilesanmi later recovered £2,500 from the Metropolitan Police.

In 2021, pastor John Sherwood was arrested in north London and taken away in handcuffs for making supposedly homophobic comments in public. A year later, he was acquitted and cleared of all charges.

Similarly, last year in Leeds, preacher David McConnell had his sentence overturned. He had previously been found guilty of harassing a transwoman by calling him a ‘man’. Immediately after McConnell was convicted, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) issued a bellicose press release saying the case should serve as a warning to anyone thinking of speaking out against trans ideology. The CPS was curiously silent, however, when McConnell’s conviction was later overturned.

Sadly, not all speakers have the resources or perseverance to take the police or prosecutors to court. Cameron had his case taken up by a pressure group, the Christian Institute. But many speakers without such luck will probably end up doing as they are told by the police.

It’s not just street preachers who are at risk of being silenced by police. Last October, during a pro-Palestine rally in London, protesters surrounded a van belonging to the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which was displaying images of the people taken hostage by Hamas. Instead of dispersing the hostile protesters, police instead ordered the driver of the van to turn off the display and leave town. Of course, what the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism was doing was perfectly lawful. It had merely offended the sensibilities of anti-Israel protesters.

You can see why this kind of thing happens. For the copper on the ground, it’s always much easier to tell a speaker to stop expressing an unpopular opinion than to tell an aggressive complainant to pipe down. Similarly, while prosecutors might enjoy a great deal of kudos for bringing supposed ‘hate criminals’ to heel, they are unlikely to be rewarded for taking a principled stand for free speech.

All this amounts to a worrying use of state power to enforce a de facto heckler’s veto. It also sends the disconcerting message that if someone wants to shut you up, then all they have to do is tell the police they are offended. This problem is only set to get much worse if a future Labour government follows through on its threats to strengthen hate-crime laws and crack down on supposedly transphobic acts, like ‘misgendering’ someone with the wrong pronouns.

While we should celebrate Angus Cameron’s legal victory in Scotland, it is clear that police are still behaving as the armed wing of the perpetually offended. They still treat controversial opinions as if they were a crime, regardless of what the law says. We need to fight for the right to preach.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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