Keep the cops out of our minds

Silent thoughts should never be prohibited

Artillery Row

In 2018, lawyers argued before the High Court that laws introduced by local councils designed to prevent harassment and intimidation near abortion facilities were so broadly drafted that they could even criminalise silent prayer i.e. impinge on the most basic of rights — our freedom to think. The High Court referred to that warning as “unattractively contrived”, noting that “in the unlikely event of being prosecuted [the accused] would be able to raise and sustain the defence of reasonable excuse”.  

Six years on, the “unlikely event” has become a repeated reality. As dystopian as it may seem, many of us saw the recorded footage of officers confronting Isabel Vaughan-Spruce for standing on a street, alone, thinking thoughts about abortion. The wrong thoughts, according to authorities. She has now been interrogated by West Midlands Police officers on four separate occasions — all of which have involved an alleged offence concerning the contents of the thoughts in the privacy of her mind. 

And while Vaughan-Spruce’s interrogations should have functioned as a blaring alarm that our hard-fought civil liberties were in great peril, parliament decided to introduce these censorial buffer zones around abortion facilities across the country. The Public Order Act 2023, which was voted through parliament in March last year, bans the vague concept of  “influencing” within 150m of a Clinic, leaving the realm of criminality ambiguously open to ideological inclinations.

Surely, a law that risks criminalising an individual’s viewpoint rather than behaviour, thought rather than the manifestation of those thoughts, and consensual interaction rather than unwanted conduct (i.e. harassment) requires, at the very least, a thorough review of the evidence? Never before in modern British history have we embarked on such a root and branch upheaval of civil liberties, permitting authorities to restrict what one can peaceably think. 

And yet calls for a review of the evidence before introducing such laws in March were summarily ignored by the government. The government itself conducted a review into the activities taking place outside abortion facilities in 2018 and concluded that instances of harassment and intimidation were rare and any move to criminalise peaceful pro-life presence nationally would be “unnecessary” and “disproportionate”. 

Had the evidence changed since 2018 and 2023? The government took the view that answering the evidential question was unnecessary. Instead of robustly protecting civil liberties, they erroneously considered the question as a matter of conscience permitting a free vote and allowing Labour to frame the debate as a pro-abortion debate rather than an unprecedented revision of our legal protections for freedom of speech and thought. The upshot was a law that would leave the realm of criminality ambiguously open to ideological inclinations, which, if interpreted accordingly, would undoubtedly be in breach of international law. Freedom of thought has long been protected as an absolute right, for good reason.

One might have thought this was hardly controversial. 

In an effort to ensure at least basic compliance with this requirement, the Home Office has offered some common-sense guidance for police and prosecutors dealing with buffer zones instances. The parameters are clear — no one should be arrested on the basis of their own internal monologue. No one should be criminalised for a consensual conversation in a public space.

One might have thought this was hardly controversial. 

Yet adherence to this most foundational principle of liberal democracy seems to have caused upset in certain echelons. Campaigners have accused the government of “gutting” the spirit of the law. Quite the opposite. The Home Office is ensuring the Public Order Act doesn’t gut our foundational democracy.

The public consultation on the government’s free-thought-protecting, common sense guidance on buffer zones is accepting feedback from the public until 11.59pm on Monday 22nd January. This juncture is an important one for Britain. It took a long time to establish the basic freedoms which we now take for granted. It would take a long time to win them back if we threw them away.

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