I know many of you Huffington Post readers find my socially conservative opinions annoying (like here, here and here). You might also think I'm a bit of a nuisance. But surely annoyance and nuisance isn't a police matter. Well, it's about to be. The Government is introducing a sweeping new anti-social behaviour law, with a very low threshold indeed. It's one of those threats to free speech which unites fierce opponents (even you and me).
The proposed new law is contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Coalition Government wants to create something called IPNA - Injunction to Prevent Nuisance or Annoyance - intended to replace the ASBO. The proposal is dangerously broad, and here's why: (a) it could apply anywhere, public or private, including inside your own home; (b) it covers conduct that is merely 'capable' of being annoying or a nuisance, not just conduct that has been; (c) it requires the weaker civil burden of proof, 'balance of probabilities', rather than the tougher test of 'beyond reasonable doubt'; (d) courts can issue an injunction if they think it 'convenient'; and (e) there's no defence of reasonableness.
Don't take my word for it. Read the stinging criticism from the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC (now Lord Macdonald). He said the new proposals amount to "gross state interference" with people's private lives and basic freedoms. He added:
"Of course political demonstrations, street performers and corner preachers may be 'annoying' to some - they may even, from time to time be a 'nuisance'. The danger in this Bill is that it potentially empowers State interference against such activities in the face of shockingly low safeguards and little apparent acknowledgement of the potential effect of its provisions on the ability of citizens to exercise core rights without undue interference."
My colleague at The Christian Institute, Simon Calvert, has teamed up with secular and civil liberty campaigners to form a new alliance in opposition to this proposed law. They did something similar with their successful campaign to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act, with the delicious tag line "feel free to insult me". Simon told the Daily Telegraph:
"Just a few months ago the Government ditched a law criminalising unintentionally insulting words or behaviour. Now they want to criminalise unintentionally annoying words or behaviour. This is a crazy law. It will not deter thugs and hooligans who are normally already breaking lots of other laws anyway. But it will give massive power to the authorities to seek court orders to silence people guilty of nothing more than breaching political correctness or social etiquette. It is chilling that there is a complete absence of safeguards and any clear definition of what is deemed to be annoying. What this means in practice is that people going about their ordinary business, such as charity collectors, protestors, carol singers, street pastors - even people simply expressing strong opinions in public - could be classed as annoying and hauled before the courts. I am sure this was not the intention of the Government, but this legislation was badly conceived, is badly written and will stop many reasonable and hither to lawful activities."
I know freedom of speech can be annoying, a nuisance even, but that's the price we pay for living in a democracy. As Lord Justice Sedley said in court ruling in 1999: "Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having."