BRISTOL, UK — Four street preachers, two from America and two from the United Kingdom, are having their case heard in court today as they challenge what they call a “sustained campaign of harassment” by the U.K. police as they have faced criminal charges and were jailed — and some were prosecuted, in light of public rejection of the proclamation of the gospel.
“The last decade has been crazy, really. [It has been] steadily getting worse from authorities and certainly an element of the general public,” plaintiff Mike Overd said in a video released by Christian Concern. “There are windows of grace and quietness from the police and the authorities, and then it all kicks off again.”
Overd is one the “Bristol Four” who are challenging the police for a series of incidents, most notably the 2016 case in which he, along with Mike Stockwell, Don Karns and Adrian Clark, were charged with violating the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998. As previously reported, the men had taken turns preaching outside of the Bristol City Centre while the others held signs or engaged in one-on-one conversation.
The men spoke on a variety of topics, including Islam, Buddhism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuality, fornication, divorce — and also presented the gospel and took questions from those who stopped to listen.
But as some in the crowd became offended and rowdy, a police officer approached Overd, who was speaking at the time, informed him that he was “not welcome” and threatened arrest if he did not stop preaching.
As Overd proceeded to quote from John 3:16, he was subsequently taken into custody. Stockwell, Karns and Clark were also charged, but the charges were later dropped against Karns and Clark.
Overd and Stockwell proceeded to trial and were initially convicted of violating the Crime and Disorder Act, being fined nearly $2,500 each.
During the legal proceedings, prosecutor Ian Jackson argued before the court that preaching that Jesus is the only way to God “cannot be a truth” and that some passages of the Bible are not acceptable for the present day.
But Court of Appeal Judge Martin Picton, who was joined by two other judges, ruled that the prosecution could not sufficiently prove that the men were motivated by animus toward any people group as they “did no more than express [their] no doubt sincerely held religious beliefs as [they were] entitled to do.” Overd and Stockwell were subsequently acquitted.
Overd has had numerous other encounters with the police, and in 2014, an officer stated on BBC television that if business owners are “offended” by his preaching, they are to “record any evidence on their mobile phone and send it to us.” He also fought a case in court in which he was accused of making “homophobic” remarks, a conviction that was later overturned.
“We have faced no alternative but to bring this case as the police must be held to account for their actions for what they did in July 2016 and moreover for their actions over the past eight years,” Overd said in a statement. “I believe I should be free to express views of public interest, including on culture or morality. … I do not attack people; however, I accept that I do criticize ideologies, other religions and certain sexual practices. Ultimately free speech is worthless without the freedom to offend.”
Stockwell, an itinerant preacher based in the United States, told Christian Concern that certain sins have become more socially acceptable over the past several decades, to the point where if one says anything against them from a biblical standpoint, they are labeled as bigots.
And when bystanders consequently rage against the proclamation of the word of God, the police — both in America and the U.K. — do not seem to be well-trained in the rights of those who engage in public speech. Instead of upholding the law, they react based on the angst of the crowd.
Stockwell says that he would like “to be able to freely go and stand in the public square and proclaim the word of God without hindrance.”
With the aid of the Christian Legal Centre, the men have consequently brought a legal challenge alleging wrongful assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and misfeasance, as well as an infringement of their rights under Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Their case is being heard today in Bristol County Court. View their story below.
“The standing point for the police is whether people are ‘offended.’ This is an entirely subjective concept and cannot be used as the primary means to decide whether lawful preaching can be stopped and the preachers deprived of their freedom,” Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said in a statement. “Any suggestion that there is a right not to be offended must be strongly resisted. In today’s democracy, we need the freedom to debate, challenge and disagree.”
“We cannot allow the gospel to be shut out of public debate, and that is what is at stake in this crucial case,” she said.