Photo by engin akyurt
Artillery Row

Punch in the face

Police officers claim that the pro-life activist who “gave offence” is just as guilty as her attacker

Offending someone is the same as punching them in the face, a police officer on duty in Norwich has told me.

What made his comment all the more shocking at the time, was the fact that both of these things had literally just happened.

A female member of my public education team had just been punched in the face by a member of the public who took offence to what she was doing. Although my colleague had done nothing threatening or violent (she didn’t even retaliate to defend herself), when Sgt Chris Clay finally turned up on the scene, he essentially said that we were as much to blame as our attacker was.

More shocking still was the specific, legal way in which he intended it: he was saying that in court my colleague, and the woman who physically assaulted her, were equally as likely to be found guilty of an offence.

So if you say something I don’t like, and I hit you, we’re both just as much to blame, apparently.

You’d have thought Norfolk Constabulary might have learned from the recent climbdown of their counterparts over at Merseyside, who proclaimed via an advertising campaign back in February that “Being offensive is an offence”, and were then forced to clarify that “‘Being offensive’ is not in itself an offence”.

Or else Norfolk Constabulary might have learned from the last time the police took issue with the Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK (CBRUK, the organisation for which I work) for doing precisely what we were doing that day in Norwich. In 2012 the Royal Courts of Justice ordered Sussex Police to pay out hundreds of thousands of pounds for wrongly arresting two of our educators by misapplication of the Public Order Act.

It seems Norfolk are on track to make the same costly mistake all over again.

If abortion is morally responsible, how can it be morally irresponsible to show it?

CBRUK exists to challenge the way society is thinking about “abortion” by visually displaying the reality of life in the womb, and what a baby looks like after “abortion”. We display our detailed, accurate photographs on large banners in city centres. This stimulates conversations with passers-by, to whom we also offer further information on leaflets. Some of our team have had abortions themselves and offer help to those who are struggling after an abortion. We also signpost to support those who are pregnant and unsure what to do.

Our right to do all this, peacefully and in a public space, is clear for all to see in Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That does not disappear if someone takes offence to what we are saying or doing. There is a critical difference between taking offence (subjective response) and giving offence (the intent).

The Public Order Act sets the bar high: it must be proven that the intent of the accused is deliberately to cause alarm or distress. Our aim is clearly not to do this: it is to educate. This was confirmed in the case with Sussex Police.

If simply seeing the reality of abortion is enough to be offended, what does that tell us about this thing that we call “healthcare”, a “choice”, “reproductive justice”? If we can’t even look at it, should our taxes be paying for it to happen, more than 500 times every day? If it’s a morally responsible act, how can it be morally irresponsible to show it?

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is more than just a noble sentiment: it happens to be in the job description for a law enforcement officer in this country. But Sgt Chris Clay and Norfolk Constabulary are either unaware of this or flagrantly disregarding it: I am not sure which would be more worrying.

Increasingly the Public Order Act is being misused as a tool to silence unfashionable opinions. Combine this with an ever more politicised police force, and you have danger brewing.

If it had been the other way around if one of my team had punched a pro-choice activist would Sgt Clay have lectured the pro-choicer for causing offence? The police taking sides is no trivial thing.

It might not yet be your point of view that’s under threat, but this censorship trend is something we all ought to worry about. Freedom of speech is to society what oil is to an engine. Without it, we’re stuffed. It stands between us and totalitarianism, or the mob rule equivalent.

It’s difficult for CBRUK to access schools, universities, even churches. We are frequently censored online. The streets are more or less the last place where we can effectively share our message. If our freedom of expression isn’t defended in the public square, then what does it mean to live in a free society?

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