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Freedom of speech for pro-lifers hangs in the balance

30 August 2018


​The postcard sent to SPUC members by post.

With buffer zones announcement expected soon, will the Home Secretary listen to freedom of expression warnings?

Earlier this month, Home Secretary Sajid Javid told pro-abortion campaigners that he plans to announce the results of a UK-wide review into buffer zones in September. In response, Antonia Tully of SPUC wrote to Mr Javid pointing out that in sanctioning national legislation to implement buffer zones he could "fatally injure the highly treasured principle of freedom of speech."

"Travesty for public freedoms"

Several civil liberties organisations have protested against the use of a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) in Ealing, the mechanism the council used to ban a pro-life vigil outside the Marie Stopes centre there. Groups including Liberty wrote to councillors to express concern, while Josie Appleton, director of Manifesto Club, which has been campaigning against the over-use of PSPOs for the past four years, said the vote was a "travesty for public freedoms". She said: "If protesters are harassing or obstructing women, they should be prosecuted under the existing criminal law. It should not be a crime for them to pray silently or offer women a leaflet as they enter the clinic. We visited the site for several hours and could see no evidence of harassment or public nuisance."

National threat

The implementation of the PSPO led to calls for national legislation, and the subsequent Home Office review. Many of the same concerns about the threat to civil liberties would seem to apply to national legislation, and the same false claims of harassment and intimidation against the peaceful, prayerful people who take part in pro-life vigils outside abortion clinics are given in its favour.

A blog published on the Oxford Human Rights Hub warns that the High Court judgement dismissing the challenge made by Alina Dulgheriu (a mother who was herself given support by members of a pro-life vigil to keep her daughter) "provides crucial insight into the ever lowering threshold at which freedom of expression can be curtailed in the United Kingdom."

Serious legal consequences

The author explains that the right to privacy laid out in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights was engaged at such a low level in the judgement as to make it impossible to distinguish between activities such as praying or offering support, and genuine intimidation and harassment. Furthermore, the judgment states that activities may be criminalised by a PSPO regime "without having been proven, particularly when considered in isolation, to be nocuous." 

The consequences of this judgement are that women (such as Alina) who want to access the support offered by the pro-lifers at the clinic gates are denied the opportunity to do so. It also seems to have laid down the "precedent that will allow protest groups to deliberately contribute to a breach of privacy in order to attract the necessary grounds for the infringement upon freedom of expression they seek in justifying a 'buffer zone'". This was the case in Ealing, where the pro-abortion Sister Supporter Group engaged in counter protests which contributed to the "atmosphere of tension" they themselves used to justify a buffer zone.

Given the serious concerns about freedom of expression raised regarding one local buffer zone, will the Home Secretary listen to these warnings when he makes his expected announcement on national legislation?

Write to the Home Secretary

Please write to Sajid Javid, the Home Secretary, urging him not to instigate buffer zone legislation.

Please also sign the SPUC petition to the Home Secretary to STOP the attack on peaceful freedom of expression, if you have not already done so and encourage others to sign the petition as well.

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