In Britain, you can be arrested for a thought crime. Not really.
In the past few months, several people have been arrested for praying silently outside British abortion clinics. Why? They violated a protection order that effectively created a strict censorship zone around the facility. While protective orders were intended to prevent aggressive protests or the heckling of women seeking services, they stifle a much broader range of speech and thought.
Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) were introduced as part of the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Under this law, some jurisdictions can obtain orders that restrict various forms of speech and conduct. For example, cities have used PSPOs to ban “vulgar language,” impose curfews on minors, and ban the homeless from sleeping in public.
In September 2022, the city of Birmingham received such an order for an abortion clinic in the city. Under the order, those on public sidewalks and streets adjacent to the clinic are “prohibited from approving or disapproving or attempting to act as approving or disapproving issues related to abortion services by any means, including but not limited to, graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or suggestion.” Not limited.”
As a result of the rule’s ridiculously broad restrictions, a woman was arrested in December for praying silently outside a Birmingham clinic — an encounter captured in a viral video. While the scale of the problem is unclear at the national level, at least one abortion clinic in the country has received a similar order — local police have fined one for praying silently nearby.
After Birmingham enacted the order, local priest Father Sean Gough decided to take an action that, based on his reading of the order, should not have been prohibited. Last year, he stood near the clinic, holding a sign that read “Pray for Freedom of Speech.” Because the sign had nothing to do with abortion, she says police initially told her she wasn’t breaking the rules.
However, according to pillar, local police eventually charged Gough with breaking the law and “intimidating service users”. He also faces a second charge because his car, which was parked in an enforcement zone, had a bumper sticker reading “Unborn Lives Matter”.
“At no point did I think I was breaking — and I’m still not breaking any laws or rules,” Gough said pillar. “I was praying for freedom of speech on that occasion, which is a legitimate thing to do.”
According to pillar, although the police ultimately dismissed Goff’s charges, they also made it clear that they could reinstate his charges at any time. Because of that, Gough decided to mount a legal challenge to his allegations. “I want my name to be cleared. And by being acquitted I want the court to clearly declare that I am not guilty, I have not broken any law,” he said. pillar.
She is backed by the Alliance Defending Freedom UK, a Christian legal group also supporting the woman arrested for silent prayer outside a Birmingham abortion clinic.
“Although charges were dropped weeks later due to ‘insufficient evidence,’ [Gough] warned that more evidence related to the allegations may soon be forthcoming, implying that the entire brutal process may soon start afresh,” said Jeremiah Igunubol, legal counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) in a press release on Thursday. The process has become punitive. And a clear example of the chilling effect it has had on freedom of expression in the UK.”
Unfortunately, it’s doubtful that this problem will go away anytime soon. Last week, the House of Lords joined the House of Commons in approving legislation that would make it a crime to “interfere” with abortion services. Although the law does not include prayer in its definition of “intervention,” it prohibits a broad range of speech that “informs or attempts to inform about abortion services in any way, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, oral, or written means.”
With their PSPO, Birmingham City Government got what they wanted. As you can imagine any pro-life protest is illegal under city ordinances. But in the process, they’ve created restrictions on speech so broad that it makes it a crime to say a prayer while walking past a local abortion clinic—a gross violation of basic civil liberties.
“Everywhere I go, inside my head, I pray for the people around me,” Goff said. “How can it be a crime to pray for a priest?”