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Saturday 11 October 2014

Willful misapplication of the law: a case in point

Three days ago, I commented on the Home Secretary's troubling new proposal to introduce Extremism Disruption Orders. You can see my comments here. My central concern was the stifling of free speech and free debate coupled with the almost certain willful misapplication of the law. Such proposals will have grave knock-on effects, not only for those whose faith is lived out in the public square, but also those who proclaim their faith from the heretofore safety of their own religious building.

For those who doubt the heavy-handed application of the law, an interesting case in point can be viewed here and here. A gentleman who went to Taunton town centre to share his faith has been specifically targeted by police. Market traders have been encouraged to film his street preaching in order to "prove" his words are offensive. Having encouraged locals to aid their evidence-gathering exercise, the evangelist in question is now being prosecuted under Section 5 of the Public Order Act (the very section that has since been amended due to such policing, as you can see here).

The fact the police encouraged market traders to film the man in question is not particularly troubling. Anybody can decide to film anyone else. If anything, it may even help his evangelistic efforts knowing that several market traders are intently listening to his message and, better yet, are keeping it for posterity. Even better again, they are probably passing it on to police as "evidence" meaning his message is being spread further than he could ever have hoped. All of that is to say the filming is not really the problem.

The real issue is that the police predetermined the level of offence and the extent to which Mr Overd was likely to breach the peace and then sought to incite the public themselves gather evidence to prove how offensive he was being. It also seems apparent that those listening were not all that incensed, given a number of complainants "failing to remember what he had said or forgetting when the alleged offensive remarks had taken place". Worse still, Mr Overd is now being prosecuted for a factually-based comparison of the lives of Jesus and Mohammad based upon historical evidence as Mr Overd understood and interpreted it.

Whatever one may feel about his mode of evangelism or the wisdom of making such comparisons, it is undoubtedly beyond question that Mr Overd should be free to do so without police intervention. Muslims, market traders and the multitudes should be free to tell Mr Overd that they don't care for his comments with equal freedom. Those same people should be free to agree and support his comments should they choose to do so. This really isn't a matter for police involvement. There was no danger of violence and certainly no call to arms.

This issue is pertinent because anybody doubting that proposed Extremism Disruption Orders will be misapplied to shut down evangelical street preachers, or even less vocal expressions of evangelicalism, need only look to the application of existing laws. Stories abound, not least this case in point, of such things using existing legislation never intended to be used in this way. The Home Secretary makes no bones about intending to permit the application of the law to people such as Mr Overd. If current legislation, never intended in this way, can be used to stifle free debate and inhibit free speech, what will come of such freedoms when the expressed position of the legislation is to inhibit in precisely these ways?

Know that this is a real issue. An issue that no longer only impacts upon evangelicals brave enough to share their faith in public ways but will affect all those who are evangelical on a Sunday morning, within their own buildings, preaching orthodoxy to their own congregations. We may have spent much time thinking they are coming for the street preachers but I'm not a street preacher so I did nothing. Well, as ever, our inactivity because it doesn't affect us means our comfortable position inside our own church buildings is likely to be next.

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