Be Careful What You Wish For: UK to Crack Down on Street Preachers and Other People Deemed ‘Annoying’

Fifteen years ago, tired of yobs and hooligans and a perceived decline in civility, British prime minister Tony Blair and his New Labour cabinet cooked up a nasty little legal concoction. It’s called an ASBO. The acronym stands for Anti Social Behavior Order.

These civil orders were designed to be issued to people whose unpleasant behavior was not otherwise (easily) prosecutable under U.K. law. And as long as we’re talking about things like vandalism and public urination, no argument here.

But soon, British police and magistrates were handing out ASBOs for virtually every behavior that someone, somewhere, disliked, including public cursing, loitering, using (allegedly) racist language, and “being rude to members of the public.” The standard for issuing an ASBO was astonishingly low from the start: anyone thought to be causing “harassment, alarm or distress” could find himself on the wrong end of one.

Inevitably, I suppose, ASBOs have been issued to operators of soup trucks servicing the homeless (because the clients were observed to litter), and to an 87-year-old man whose judicial order specified that he was no longer allowed, on penalty of prison, to be “sarcastic” to his neighbors. (One of the problems with ASBOs is that if you break them, you can be jailed. A 20-something homeless man in Birmingham, having repeatedly broken his ASBO against begging, was sentenced to a total of five years behind bars for an offense that itself is non-imprisonable).

Perhaps the most peculiar ASBO I’m aware of was given to Leroy Trought, a Bristol bar owner who turned an adjoining area into a parking lot that he called, with a public sign, the Porking Yard, a reference to a century-old butcher shop across the street. A magistrate, mindful that local mosque-goers might find the reference to pork offensive, ordered Trought to change the wording of the “porking yard” sign to “parking yard.”

Now, I have both good and bad news to share. ASBOs, which dispense justice in such a slapdash, arbitrary way, may be on the way out. But that’s no cause for celebration, considering what likely comes next. According to the Telegraph,

ASBOs are to be scrapped and replaced with wide-ranging new orders known as IPNAs (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance). They are designed to be easier to obtain, require a lower evidential threshold and yet cover a wider range of behaviour. …

Before an ASBO could be issued, a court has to be satisfied that someone had at least caused or threaten to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” to someone else, and the order was “necessary” to protect the victim. But the new system will allow courts to impose sweeping curbs on people’s liberty if they think they are “capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. They will be able to impose them if they think it is “just and convenient” to do so.

What that means is that

… preachers, buskers and peaceful protesters could effectively be driven off the streets. … [T]he new powers could [also] be used against charity collectors or even carol singers.

A group called the Christian Institute is involved in the brawl over the new proposal, as are many secular organizations. An Institute spokesperson said:

“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.”

Another campaigner against the British proposal added:

“This is a crazy law. It will not deter thugs and hooligans who are 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.”

Street preachers have as much right to publicly spout their opinions as anyone. I’d be happy to see them slink away, never to emerge again, but I most definitely don’t want them to scram as the result of any kind of government coercion. What the state can do to them, it can do to all of us.

ASBOs and IPNAs deserve to die — to be replaced by nothing but the public’s acceptance that in a free and grown-up country, no one has the state-sponsored right not to be offended by ‘annoying’ forms of expression.

(photo via the Telegraph)

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder and Main Mischief Maker of Moral Compass, a site that pokes fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards.

  • Michael

    We just got rid of the law against things that might insult people, so they bring this in.

    Everyone should complain about church bells and the elderly until it is thrown out.

    • James Stevenson

      Just complain about politicians calling people ‘plebs’ and eventually they’ll cover their own asses and drop it.

      • MineApostasy

        Nigel Farage will be buried under a sea of the damned things.

  • closetatheist

    What if I find loitering police(wo)men to be exasperating? Or poop from police horses irritating? Or their decision to block a full lane of traffic during rush hour so they can ticket someone not wearing a seatbelt to be annoying? When do I get my own book of tickets to begin issuing?

    I didn’t realize that any human society had solved so many of its most pressing problems that they could then begin worrying about such trifles.

    • Taz

      How about politicians for existing?

  • baal

    “I’m Feeling offended, oppressed and annoyed by that posh outfit that guy is wearing, officer, IPNA his ass immediately!”

    • Jim Jones

      And then there’s the royal family.

  • primenumbers

    Wear a hoodie, get an ASBO.

    • 7Footpiper

      I actually tried doing that in Bluewater last time I was visiting the insane island of my birth. No ASBO was forthcoming.

      • primenumbers

        I’d left the UK before they started the ASBO thing, but it’s fun to tease the nephews with it.

        • MineApostasy

          I’ve not seen them get dished out over here very much, to be honest, but I don’t live in a provincial backwater where the distinct fear of the ever-troublesome youths clouds judgement. The last time I even heard of anyone I knew getting one was a friend of a friend some six years ago because he drunkenly stood on the roof of a police van, nearly naked save for the Scottish Flag wrapped around himself like a shroud, and urinated on the windshield.

          To my knowledge he’s now working for an MSP in the highlands…

    • The Captain

      Hey, at least it’s better than here in the US where if you wear a hoodie (and are of a certain race of course) any old ass hole wanna be neighborhood watch can shot and kill you.

  • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

    This is probably completely off subject, but the first thing that came to mind when I read this article was that I’m appreciative of the fact that Northern Ireland is semi-autonomous from Great Britain in terms of government. As much as I hate that the Orangemen march through Catholic neighbourhoods on 12 July, and as much as I fight for peace, secularism, and reconciliation, I can’t deny that the marchers have the right to march. If tthe ASBOs applied in the North of Ireland, the Orangeman marches would have been stopped in a heartbeat. But so would the Free Republic marches. Free speech stifled all around.

    On the other hand, the semi-autonomy means that gay marriage is still illegal in the North of Ireland and that Catholics are restricted from some jobs and civil positions. Which is where much of the trouble stems from.

    Seriously UK, get your shite together.

    • Golfie98

      I know it is off topic, but what jobs and civil positions are catholics restricted from in the North of Ireland?

      • Anna

        Also, how do they know if people are Catholic? Is there some sort of official government registry?

        • The Other Weirdo

          In the Soviet Union, in the good old days, they used to put your race on your passport which you required for many interactions with the civil authorities. Also, they used to put it into class lists in schools. This way, they’d know who they needed to beat up when the subject of the Jews would inevitably come up.

          I hear they’ve done away with that since the collapse.

          Maybe they have something similar.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            They’ve done away with the ‘nationality’ in the Russian passport. The beating up part still remains sadly.

            • The Other Weirdo

              Heard through my parents’ friends that now they beat you up based on looks rather than the passport. The old joke seems as much in force today as it was under the USSR.

              Friend 1: “Let’s go beat up a couple Jews and the postmen.”
              Friend 2: “Sure, I’m with you, but tell me, what have we got against the postmen?”

              • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

                Little Russian orphan Ivan writes a letter to dyed moroz (Santa):

                “Please grandfather frost- I have no hat, no mittens, no boots, and no coat. I am always so very cold. Could you please bring me these things for the New Year?”

                Staff at the post office are touched and set up a collection for Ivan. They manage a hat and mittens and some boots, but they also don’t have much money, and nobody has an extra coat. So they package up what they have and send it to Ivan.

                Ivan writes another letter:

                “Dearest grandfather frost! Thank you so much for the hat, mittens and boots! Sadly, those assholes at the post office stole my coat!”

                • The Other Weirdo

                  I’ve never heard that one. I guess everybody hates their post office. :)

        • MineApostasy

          It’s generally through surname, style of dress, neighbourhood, accent, or any other distinction. It creates a self-enforced order.

          • Anna

            Thanks for the info!

    • Michael

      Assuming the UK does not get its shite together, can we get some kind of infobase sorted out listing places less shitty?

      Seriously, I just landed my perfect job and it’s become nothing more than a way to put enough money aside to leave.

    • The Other Weirdo

      Yay for the 21st century and the year 2013. Wait… What? Catholics restricted from certain jobs? Non-Catholics pushing Catholic buttons for no purpose whatsoever? Hmm.

      • islandbrewer

        So … Tony Blair is prohibited from certain government jobs in Northern Ireland?

        • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

          Haha well I suppose you could make a case for it. But it’s less black and white than that. Much of the segregation and restrictions in the North of Ireland are ‘voluntary,’ which makes them much more difficult to fight.

      • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

        The Peace Line in Belfast separating Catholics and Protestants. Note the armed police station.

        • MineApostasy

          Always a pleasant area to be near. In truth I’ve not had much trouble in Belfast, except when my mate got the bright idea to visit a friend of his in the holy land and we got followed all the way through by a group of young bucks who were just itching for us to make a mistake.

          • http://Www.theirishatheist.wordpress.com/ The Irish Atheist

            Aye…sounds like home sweet home.

    • http://garicgymro.wordpress.com garic gymro

      But, as I understand it, ASBOs *do* apply in Northern Ireland: http://www.nidirect.gov.uk/anti-social-behaviour-orders-asbos

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

    in the state of my birth they can, and recently did, arrest people for “vulgar language.” some dood was out on a boat on a lake. the local enforcers are known to be extreme dickwads, overusing their powers excessively. so the guy drops his beer or hooks his finger or something and says ‘fuck! damn!’ and gets a citation, and a fine.

    more to the point of this post, yes. do be careful about censorship of any kind. today’s oppressed street preacher is tomorrow’s Occupy participant jailed.

    • 3lemenope

      Forget tomorrow’s Occupy participant. It’s wrong to penalize the street preacher for preaching all on its own.

      • Brian Westley

        The no-swearing law was eventually thrown out as unconstitutional:

        http://caselaw.findlaw.com/mi-court-of-appeals/1135834.html

        • 3lemenope

          Not something the poor sods across the pond can hope for, what with the Doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy and no real judicial review to speak of.

  • Coraulten

    MURICA…wait what?

  • aoscott

    The UK is outpacing even the US in ways to silence and imprison people they deem to be a nuisance. Similarly, they argue terrorism is anything that seeks to influence the political discourse. This is naturally where the loose definition of terrorism was going to be heading, but it should still give us pause.

    • Compuholic

      I was thinking the same thing. Add to it the blatant violation of the freedom of press (my understanding is that officially there is no such thing in the UK anyways) when it came to the Snowden story. Or the detainment of Greenwalds partner on the basis of some flimsy terrorism law.

      But it’s not just the UK and the US. Sometimes I get the impression that the whole western civilization is heading back to the medieval ages fast. Here in Germany the rights of what the police is allowed to do are continuously expanded at the expense of personal freedoms, especially with regards to electronic surveillance.

      Erich Mielke would be proud. If we continue at this pace it will not be long until China can lecture us about how a free society is supposed to look like and human rights.

      • Dave The Sandman

        “my understanding is that officially there is no such thing in the UK anyways”

        then that understanding would be entirely wrong.

        We may not have the words written as in your US 1st Amendment but freedom of the press, political expression, free assembly etc is written into our organic framework of laws and statutes such as the Human Rights Act and its overarching sister EU version the ECHR.

        The US has a single written Constitution. The UK and other European states have what are termed “Constitution by law and statute”. Just because there is no single document setting out a series of rights does not mean under the latter system that those rights are not enshrined in a law or several parallel laws and statutes.

        • Compuholic

          Thanks for clarifying that.

        • aoscott

          I always considered the UK to mirror the US in terms of press freedoms, freedom of speech, etc. But lately there have been some noticeable differences. The most striking to me was the government having The Guardian destroy their copies of the Snowden documents. That is (for now) something that would not happen in the US.

          I’m not saying the US is perfect, we tend to have much more subtle ways of stifling speech, but still, that was a pretty shocking episode.

      • aoscott

        Sad to hear that about Germany. You have a reputation here in the US of being the stalwarts of privacy (your battles against Google have definitely strengthened that perception!), but we are seeing similar trends with our police forces. Increasingly militarized too.

        • Compuholic

          For companies this is probably even correct. The level of protection of your personal data is quite high. And the EU in general takes this issue fairly seriously.

          However as it is so often: Laws are only for the small people and corporations. Of course law enforcement can do a lot more with your data than the ordinary company is allowed to do. Technically most of the invasive stuff has to be approved by a judge. However it seems that judges just sign pretty much everything that the police demands.

          And what really worries me off is the trend that organizations that collect data are increasingly legally obliged to keep the data for some time explicitly for law enforcement purposes. Of course ISPs had to keep the IP address assignments for a long time.

          Now that doesn’t seem to be enough. Currently there are discussions on recording license plates on the highways from the toll collection system and recording metadata on cell phones, contacts with other IP addresses and email headers. Of course there is a lot of political resistance but if history is any indication they will get those rights sooner or later. Probably not all at once but slowly and steadily.

          • aoscott

            Just goes to show you these forces will do whatever they can, regardless of where it happens. A lot of what you described is happening here in the States as well. Your point about being forced to keep data is especially true. Its a detail that often gets overlooked.

    • Jim Jones

      The UK bankrupted itself fighting Hitler’s oppression – and now volunteers to suffer under laws that Hitler enthusiastically supported.

      • aoscott

        They and their allies love to quote one of his more famous propaganda lines: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.”

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    In Russia they call it ‘hooliganism’ and use it to make young women disappear for having the temerity to not agree with every thing Papa Putin says.

  • James Stevenson

    Indeed. A big part of the original hope for ASBO’s is that they would deal with the ‘teenage scourge’ of loiterer’s. Typically the kind of people who, during the winter, would pack stones into snowballs and throw them at passersby. Of course these are the kind of people that ignored them and laughed about it as a badge of pride anyway.
    Normally I’m not one for playing up worst case scenarios but the ASBO’s have been one of the most ridiculous policy’s put in place over the past couple of decades. Can only hope that their replacement is scrapped.

  • SC

    I think Stephen Fry’s responds to this kind of thinking well….

    “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

    • Librepensadora

      Stephen Fry’s spot-on common sense comment on the whole “offended” issue reminds me of the Salem witch trials here in the US. If you did not like someone, all you had to say was “I think she is a witch” and invent something that would make your accusation credible. The woman you hated was tortured and burned at the stake. Your reward for discovering this demon possessed paragon of evil was part or all of her worldly goods. If there is no objective standard, in other words, there is no way to fairly determine criminal activity.

      • allein

        They didn’t burn ‘em, they just hanged ‘em (except that one guy who got pressed to death…).

        • ShoeUnited

          I always love when someone remembers that burnings only happened across the pond.

          Additionally, if you admitted you were a witch, the trial was over and you were left on your way. The only way you could lose the trial (and your life and property) was to deny the charges.

  • JR

    I find the whole idea of the IPNA offensive. Does this mean that all the politicians who support them will be prohibited from supporting them on pain of imprisonment, and if not why not?

  • LesterBallard

    This asshole, https://www.facebook.com/OpenAirTony, was arrested in London earlier this year, and it really stoked his persecution complex. I loathe and despise him, but to me, free speech is almost 100% absolute.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    This is a bit of a tangent, but since we are on the topic of trying to stop vandalism… http://www.freerangekids.com/a-man-photographs-some-kids-and-is-murdered-for-it/

  • Leiningen’s Ants

    Nevermind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols.

  • ZenDruid

    It might work, if they include in the crackdown those people who have no other purpose in life than to be offended.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    This has the potential for exponential detonation. Having IPNAs filed against one is annoying, so counter-IPNAs will immediately be filed. This will annoy police officers and judges who are already busy with more important problems, so they’ll issue meta IPNAs against those annoyed and annoying people who are filing the original and the counter-IPNAs. That will further annoy the filers and so counter-meta IPNOs will be filed against the police and the judges. Meanwhile, people who need the police and courts for more pressing issues will become annoyed by the gridlock, so they’ll demand to file IPNAs too, and then they’ll get counter-meta IPNAs from the annoyed and annoying police and judges, and on and on.

    Within six hours, every citizen, police officer, and judge in Great Britain will have hundreds of IPNAs filed against them, and everyone will be very, very annoyed. No one will be able to comply with the cease-and-desist requirements of all those IPNAs, so within one week everyone everywhere will be in jail, still busily filing IPNAs against their cell mates and their guards, who will also be in jail. Civilization will collapse, which is very annoying to say the least.

    • 3lemenope

      This gambit can work in real life, if the system you are using it against is brittle enough. I was once involved in a protest against a University policy that held all disciplinary meetings closed to public scrutiny even if all parties preferred an open hearing. The way we protested is with our presence at a closed hearing. Which led to charges for improperly breaching a closed hearing. Which led to a closed hearing. Which was then protested for being closed.

      The university abandoned the retaliatory tactic and sat down to negotiate pretty quickly.

      • Terry Firma

        3lemenope: I have something fairly urgent to ask you for a piece I’m working on. Could you contact me at terryxfirma AT gmail DOT com? Thanks!

    • keddaw

      Any civilization with ASBOs and IPNAs deserves to collapse and what eventually emerges from the catastrophe will be better. Until it devolves into faceless bureaucrats thinking they can make everyone’s lives better by curbing freedoms and we get the ASBO equivalents all over again.

      Government is a necessary evil, but lets keep it as small as possible to restrict the evils we have to endure, eh?

  • A3Kr0n

    Keep remembering why our ancestors came to this country, and never let this country get like the counties our ancestors left.

    • Ton_Chrysoprase

      Blanket chauvinism much? The Brits are currently losing it more than a little but moralistic legal infringements of civil liberties are much more prevalent in the US than in most of continental Europe, see laws surrounding alcohol or regulation of speech deemed profane for instance.

      • A3Kr0n

        It sounded so cool though when I wrote it, but ya, it doesn’t seem to be getting any better over here either.

        • 3lemenope

          Really? On the “moralistic legal infringements” end of things, it has most definitely been getting better, between the erosion of the drug war and ever more jurisdictions extending concrete legal protections and privileges for gay people consonant with those enjoyed by straight people.

  • the moother

    The UK is neither free nor grown up. You should know that, Terry.

    • Terry Firma

      Agreed.

  • Dave The Sandman

    Im with Terry here – this sounds like a dangerous slide away from common sense and waaaay into NIMBY land where abuse and misapplication will be commonplace.

    My guess is also it will only stand until someone challenges its application and legality to the highest UK court on a point of law or further to the EU courts.

    Reminds me of the village council in Hot Fuzz.

  • http://oolon.co.uk/ oolon

    Huh, funny how the original story morphs from “various locals” finding it offensive, with “porking” actually being slang for fucking in the UK as well as the Islamic connection. Into just Muslims complaining about it since pork is offensive to their religion… Obviously totally coincidental that the Muslim angle is more, err, interesting to journalists!
    http://nobodysbusiness.typepad.com/nobodys_business/2005/03/british_man_con.html

    Now I can totally imagine rich, white, middle class nimbys in the UK complaining about this solely on the sexual language. But the focus is on those weird muslims with their weird religious beliefs. I think ASBOs and IPNAs are mostly ridiculous, especially with the jail time some people get. The naked rambler would have been a better example given he has spent years in prison due to the ASBOs he has accumulated (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Gough)

  • ORAXX

    “Annoying” is a pretty broad category. I find Faux Noise and Rush Limbaugh, “annoying”, but would never suggest locking any of them up for it. In a free society, it’s okay to annoy others, at least up to the point that annoyance turns into a legitimate infringement on the other person’s rights.

  • Chris Adams

    I’m curious if the police are immune from IPNAs? Personally, I’d see someone handing out these things as annoying.. Can you turn right around and start giving them to all the police? Punishable by jailtime if they continue handing them out?


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