LONDON – Christian street evangelists could be caught under new antisocial behavior legislation currently being debated in the House of Lords, a senior peer and campaigners have warned.
The new antisocial behavior bill, if successful in the House of Lords, would replace current antisocial behavior orders (ASBOS) with injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance (IPNAs) that could target open air preaching.
“The combination of a low and vague threshold for the behavior trigger, coupled with the civil standard of proof, creates an unacceptable risk that individuals will inappropriately be made subject of a highly intrusive measure that may greatly impact on their fundamental rights,” said Lord Macdonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions and Liberal Democrat Peer.
“Of course political demonstrations, street performers and corner preachers may be ‘annoying’ to some. They may even, from time to time be a ‘nuisance,’” he continued. “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.”
Macdonald also said the planned IPNAs, which fall under clause 1 of the new antisocial behavior bill, could result in “serious and unforeseeable interferences in individual’s rights, to the greater public detriment.”
Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the Christian Institute, Simon Calvert, warned that the law was worrisome and would ultimately not work.
“It is a crazy law. It will give massive power to the authorities to seek out orders to silence people guilty of nothing more than legitimate protest,” he said. “The dust hasn’t yet settled on that successful campaign against criminalizing ‘insults’, yet the government is back again with a new law against ‘nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’. When free speech and the right of protest is challenged in such a draconian way, you start seeing unusual alliances spring up. We saw it over the successful campaign to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act.”
The word ‘insulting’ was dropped from controversial Section 5 of the Public Order Act after successful campaigning by the Christian Institute and secular organizations. Under the reformed section, it is no longer illegal to use insulting language where a specific victim cannot be identified.
The campaign to change the section followed the arrest and prosecutions of an Oxford student who asked a police officer “Do you realize your horse is gay?” Thames Valley police described the comments as homophobic and “offensive to people passing by.” A 16-year-old also got into trouble under the section after holding up a placard that said “Scientology is a dangerous cult.”
If passed, the antisocial behavior laws could apply to those inside a private dwelling, as well as in a public space, to any activity, which has the ‘potential’ to be annoying or a nuisance. Under the proposed powers, courts could also grant injunctions on the basis of ‘convenience’. The proposed law requires only a civil burden of proof (balance of probabilities) and there is no defense of ‘reasonableness’.
The bill is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords. The bill needs to go through a reporting stage, amendment stage and a third reading in the House before it becomes an Act of Parliament by the Royal Assent (Queen’s agreement).