Police out of the public square!

People must be free to preach, leaflet and push pamphlets in public spaces without having their collars felt by the law.

Not many people will shed a tear for Jordan Horner, the 20-year-old north-east Londoner who converted to Islam and who last week was banned by the Old Bailey in London from preaching in public for the next five years. A glance at Horner’s mugshot is more likely to elicit a giggle than a weep: his wispy ginger beard and pasty face sit uneasily with the Islamic head dress he has adopted, giving the impression of a youthful Brit playing at being edgy rather than a genuinely Koran-fuelled believer. Horner has been banned from public preaching partly because he put up stickers in Waltham Forest saying ‘Sharia-Controlled Zone’, which further speaks to the fantasy nature of his Islamist life: sharia law, of course, has no dominion over the good people of Waltham Forest.

But even if you find Horner more silly than sympathetic, you should still be worried by the implications of the judgement against him. What we have here is a ruling that restricts an individual’s freedom of speech, through preventing him from saying certain things in public, and his freedom of religion, through forbidding him from preaching and attempting to convert others to his take on Islam - all on the basis that, as one police officer said, his views are ‘extremist’. If we allow coppers and judges to decide what ideas are ‘extremist’ and can therefore be forced by law out of public life, then we effectively connive in the undermining of our own rights to speak, preach and proselytise as we see fit about things we strongly believe in. After all, what is to stop some figure of authority from now moving on to brand hardcore Catholicism or out-there Maoism or some other worldview as ‘extremist’ and to ban the proponents of such ideologies from bigging them up in public?

Horner was served with an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) preventing him from preaching anywhere in London for a period of five years. If he breaks the order, he can be arrested and sent to jail. Let’s make no mistake here: he has effectively been found guilty of committing a speech crime, a thoughtcrime in fact. The commander of the police in Waltham Forest celebrated the restriction on Horner’s preaching by saying it ‘sends a clear message that extremist behaviour will not be tolerated on our streets’. That use of the word ‘behaviour’ is disingenuous. Yes, Horner applied stickers to public surfaces and also harassed young people who were drinking in his imaginary sharia zone; he assaulted someone, too. But there are already plenty of laws to deal with an individual who damages public property or harasses individuals. The ASBO focused in large part, not on Horner’s behaviour, but on his proselytising - as one report puts it, he was reprimanded by the Old Bailey for ‘handing out leaflets in support of sharia law’ and ‘preaching about sharia’. That is, he’s being punished partly for believing in something - sharia-style Islam - and for communicating that belief to others. It wasn’t only his behaviour that landed him the Old Bailey - it was also his personal convictions.

Some media reports have emphasised how the ASBO served against Horner is groundbreaking. It is true that this is the first time an ASBO has been used to ban the preaching of religious views in public. But this ASBO nonetheless speaks to a broader clampdown by officialdom on what individuals may say in the public square; it speaks to the shrink-wrapping of public space, the transformation of it from an arena in which we can preach, push pamphlets, leaflet and attempt to engage our fellow citizens in debate to a space where our words are watched and our leaflets are checked for potentially offensive content.

Indeed, just last month a preacher in Scotland was arrested on suspicion of ‘inciting hatred’ of homosexuals after he publicly preached about ‘sexual sin’. In recent years, leafleters have had their leaflets confiscated by police on the grounds that they were ‘motivated by hate’ (so what?) or were ‘offensive’. So in 2012, Christians in Norwich were prevented by their local council from handing out leaflets titled ‘Why Not Islam’, which argued that people should not convert to Islam (seems criticising Islam is a ban-worthy misdemeanour as much as promoting hardcore Islam is). The leaflets were branded as ‘hate motivated’. In 2010, a Christian preacher in Cumbria was arrested for handing out a leaflet explaining the Ten Commandments and the notion of sin, which said same-sex relationships were wicked. In many parts of Britain, there are now no-leafleting zones where nobody, regardless of whether they’re fans of sharia, haters of homosexuality or just promoters of moderate political viewpoints, can hand out leaflets without a licence. And obtaining a licence can be bloody expensive: they cost £175 in Kensington; £2,000 in Hammersmith. Through direct censorship of ‘hateful’ literature or the officialisation of the act of leafleting, our age-old right to distribute our ideas in printed form to all and sundry is being curtailed.

Not content with more closely policing the press and the internet (it was last week revealed that the Lib-Con government aspires to automatically filter ‘extremist’ Islamic ideas from everyone’s internet connections), UK officialdom is now increasingly restricting what we can say or pass between ourselves face to face, in the street, in that political, democratic square where for thousands of years philosophers have mused out loud, so-called messiahs have warned of future doom, and radicals have handed out pamphlets that no bookshop would dare stock. It is of course the case that there are many annoying propagandists in the public sphere. My least favourite are the animal-rights activists who take to high streets to set up stalls plastered with pictures of depressed-looking sheep or slaughtered chickens in order to shock Saturday shoppers out of their carnivorous stupor. But the best way to deal with these wannabe changers of people’s minds is either to ignore them (my preferred option), talk to them, argue with them, or maybe wind them up, for example by tucking into a Big Mac as you pass an animal-rights shock-fest. The worst thing we could do is ask for more state policing of public space and political interaction, because one day it might not just be sad ginger Islamists who are prevented from preaching - it might be you, too.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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