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Artillery Row

Don’t buffer the truth about censorship zones

This is an attack on freedom and choice

Can the state censor conversation on a public street? Should the government have the power to prevent people from being influenced — and penalise those “guilty” of influencing? 

It all seems like a nefarious concept crawling out from between the pages of an Orwell novel. Yet these are the questions at the heart of the hearing held today before the UK Supreme Court concerning the troublesome Abortion Services (Safe Access Zones) (Northern Ireland) Bill

The clause in question is marketed as a public service. Proponents claim that it prevents the harassment of women outside abortion facilities. Yet this is untrue. The wording of the legislation flies past harassment — which is already illegal — and hits freedom of expression square in the face. 

The clause in issue, clause 5(2)(a), criminalises not harassment, aggression or physical threats but attempts to “influence”, whether “directly or indirectly”. A failed attempt to include a defence of “reasonable excuse”, rejected by the Northern Ireland Assembly, leaves the clause to function as a sort of strict liability offence. 

Censorship zones are not pro-choice. They are no-choice

The Supreme Court will decide whether the clause is consistent with freedom of speech, association and religion as secured under the Human Rights Act 1998. 

Perhaps most worrying about the bill is that it is not an isolated occurrence. It is but one amongst a growing trend of laws that lack accessibility, intelligibility, clarity and predictability — basic tenets of the rule of law. 

What counts as “influencing” is literally anyone’s guess. This use of terminology is so broad that it sinks the threshold for criminality to an all-time low. It hands arbitrary power to police officers, with the inevitable consequence being the unjust arrest and prosecution of those expressing minority viewpoints — in this instance pro-life views. Views protected, no less, by domestic and international human rights law. 

One of the law’s moral offences, the greatest may be that it could limit offers of help. Women like Alina Dulgheriu know. She was abandoned, alone and without a job when she found herself in a crisis pregnancy. She thought she had no choice but abortion. But when she turned up at the abortion facility, a pro-life volunteer offered her a leaflet advertising help. The organisation gave Alina the financial, practical and emotional support she needed to bring her child into the world — even providing housing until she was back on her feet. It was a warm offer of help that she would not have encountered anywhere else.

Censorship zones don’t just prevent offers of help from being made, they limit women’s rights to hear those offers and options. They are not pro-choice. They are no-choice. 

In fact, where “censorship zones” have been rolled out in England, many would be surprised that the scope for criminalisation has gone beyond restricting speech to banning even silent prayer — an activity taking place within the privacy of an individual’s mind. It is quite literally a thought crime. 

Such laws serve as a stark reminder that where the frontiers of the right to free speech are not jealousy and robustly guarded, it is only a matter of time before the state feels empowered to infringe on the right to freedom of thought.

Earlier this week, news broke that 76-year-old Rosa Lalor had successfully pushed back against an unjust fine she had received after being arrested for praying. The Liverpudlian grandmother had been taking a prayer walk, alone, nearby an abortion facility in February 2021. She prayed with headphones in, and a mask on, just to be safe. 

Police don’t exist to be agents of cancel culture

Police stopped her and asked what she was doing. “I’m walking and praying,” she replied. Prayer should take place in a church, not in the street, reasoned the police officer. He accused Rosa of being there to “protest”, arrested her, detained her in a police car and fined her £200. 

Thankfully, after over a year of legal proceedings, Merseyside Police have conceded that they got it wrong. Rosa was acting within her rights — having a “reasonable excuse” to be outdoors praying. The police had jumped the gun and clamped down on her fundamental freedoms. This is the very same police force, notably, that had to apologise last year for wrongly advertising that “being offensive is an offence” on a public billboard. Go figure. 

Pro-life views are not the most popular in our current cultural climate. That much is clear. But police don’t exist to be agents of cancel culture. Nor is it their role to determine whether an opinion is acceptable or not, not least when it comes to matters of political and social debate. Cases such as those of Maya Forstater and Harry Miller have taught us better than to entertain viewpoint discrimination. 

Police do, on the other hand, exist to respond to genuine threats to public order while protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of women like Alina and Rosa, who just want to be able to communicate on an issue that has a profound impact on women across the country. It doesn’t serve women to remove offers of help. It’s patronising to assume that they cannot hear relevant information and make informed decisions for themselves. 

If we want to be pro-woman and pro-freedom, censorship zones are taking us in the wrong direction.

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