Andy Stephenson and Kathryn Sloane feel fairly strongly about abortion. So strongly, that they decided to mount a (peaceful) public protest outside an abortion clinic in Brighton. Their method of making their case was to display a large (7ft by 5 ft) graphic banner which showed a picture of an aborted human embryo. Police were called by a member of staff concerned that patients entering the clinic felt traumatised and upset. The Police arrived and told Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane to take down their banner. They did so, replacing it with another similar banner. The police then arrested the pair, and took them to the police station. And there they held them for 14 hours before finally releasing them at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane were released on police bail, and are due to return to court tomorrow to hear if they will be prosecuted under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. (Thanks to Gary Benfold for bringing this story to my notice.)
The issue, of course, is freedom of speech. I was somewhat amused by the comments of Ann Furedi, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who said she fully supported the right of pro-life activists to demonstrate against abortion clinics - but who then added: "There is a distinction between freedom of expression and actions that are designed to distress people who are accessing legal, medical services." Actually, there isn’t. And it’s not as if Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane simply wanted to distress people for the fun of it. They were trying to make the point that what abortion does to an embryo is something very distressing.
A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
Section 5 was also the legislation under which Dale McAlpine was arrested.
It seems to me that Section 5 is a piece of legislation in need of repealing. I’ve asked before, but I’ll ask again: “Why do we have a law on our statute book which means that someone can be guilty of a crime simply for using "insulting" words within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused "distress"?” The words “abusive or insulting” should go. In fact, the whole section should go - since the matter of threatening behaviour is covered by Section 4 of the Act.
Now, to be honest, I don’t like the pictures that Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane displayed. They would put me right off my cocoa and buns. But that’s not the point, is it?
So let’s hope that Section 5 is included in Mr. Clegg’s Great Repeal Act.