Street preachers appeal their arrests: a test for free speech

Four street preachers, arrested for preaching in Bristol, England, have won the right to appeal a judgment that they were arrested lawfully, in a court case that will occur this week. The Court case will test the boundaries of free speech in the UK.

Michael Overd, Mike Stockwell, Don Karns and AJ Clarke were arrested in 2016 – and two of them, Stockwell and Overd, were fined for “a religiously aggravated public order offence” in February 2017 but cleared on appeal.

The four brought claims against Avon and Somerset police for assault, false imprisonment and infringement of their Human Rights, and that case is what is being appealed.

“The case raises significant issues on the right to freedom of speech and the freedom of Christian preachers in the UK to manifest their religious beliefs and to have the right to freedom of assembly in public,” according to the Christian Concern charity.

“At the centre of the case is a dramatic incident captured on body cam video footage revealing the shocking arrest of Mr Overd on 6 July 2016. The four preachers had been preaching on Christian beliefs, sin and life after death. On a number of occasions the preachers engaged with hecklers, and, over time, a large crowd gathered to listen.”

 

“In the video footage, the arresting officer, PC Phillipou, said to Mr Overd after his arrest: ‘There is a line of freedom of speech … you were aggravating people … challenging homophobia … challenging Muslims…”’

“To which Mr Overd says: ‘We were just saying what the Bible says.’

“The policeman says: ‘That’s fine,’ to which Mr Overd responds: ‘Then why have you arrested me?’

However, the BBC reported strong statements by Overd, “calling members of the crowd ‘God haters’ and ‘depraved’. Mr Overd criticised Islam and claimed that then prime minister David Cameron was ‘no more Christian than my dogs’ because of his support for same-sex marriage.”

In an earlier account, Christian Concern reported this dialogue ” Stockwell had quoted a Bible verse in which Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life” and that he is the only way to heaven.

Mr Stockwell said: “If you are trying to come through Catholicism, through Jehovah Witness, through Mormonism, the Bible says you’re a thief and a liar and a thief comes to steal and destroy. But Christ came that we may have life.”

The Judge in the first case the preachers bought gainst the police expressed sympathy for both the preachers and the police. But the arrests were ruled lawful.

A subsequent ruling in may this year granted leave to appeal on some of the grounds raised by the preachers that relate to freedom of speech, but not the actions of the police.

In that ruling  Justice Andrew Henshaw – a high Court Judge –  commented”Seems to me that the Claimants have a real prospect of success on their contention that the very limited second-hand information which the arresting officers had about the actual contents of the Claimants’ speeches … did not provide grounds for reasonable suspicion that the Claimants were committing or had committed a racially or religiously aggravated public order offence.”

He added: “Rather than this being a case of the Claimants’ speech being so provocative that members of the crowd might ‘without behaving wholly unreasonably’ be moved to violence (Redmond-Bate), the main problem lay with a number of audience members already known to be dangerous who were themselves liable to instigate unlawful violence.”

 

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