This week, the arrest of British Catholic woman for “praying” outside an abortion clinic has attracted international attention. But the jailing of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, director of anti-abortion group March for Life UK, is neither surprising nor particularly rare as a denial of free speech in Great Britain.
It is also a cautionary tale for those in the United States, which is facing arguably the largest anti-free speech movement in its history.
Pictures from Birmingham show Vaughan-Spruce, 45, simply standing near the abortion clinic silently praying when an officer confronts her. She was not blocking access or displaying any protest signs or material. Nevertheless, she was arrested, jailed, interrogated and ultimately charged with four counts of violating the abortion clinic “buffer zone.”
According to reports, the West Midlands Police officer asked her, “Are you praying?” She responded, “I might be praying in my head, but not out loud.”
That was it. She was arrested for praying “in her head” near an abortion clinic.
‘Extremity of views’
A recent order from Sept. 7 made clear that praying near an abortion clinic is now a criminal act in the country. The Birmingham City Council order says that prohibited acts includes “but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.”
Various individuals heralded the arrest. Dr. John Michael Leslie went on Twitter to declare, “No, you’re in violation of [the law] if you repeatedly harass women going to a Family Planning Clinic who might be asking for Abortion Advice. ‘Praying in her head’ is the spin from her supporters.”
However, legally, that is itself a dangerous spin. She was not arrested for past conduct but her current conduct, which was praying in her head.
Another poster objected that, “It’s so obvious she’s martyring herself in the glare of the public as a way of publicizing her beliefs, she knowingly went into that area to get arrested. You must think we’re all crackers.”
Indeed, though “crackers” does not quite capture the free speech crisis in the UK. This is not the first thought crime prosecuted in the country.
Last year, Nicholas Brock, 52, was convicted of a thought crime in Maindhead, Berkshire. The neo-Nazi was given a four-year sentence for what the court called his “toxic ideology” based on the contents of the home he shared with his mother in Maidenhead, Berkshire. While most of us find Brock’s views repellent and hateful, they were confined to his head and his room. Yet, Judge Peter Lodder QC dismissed free speech or free thought concerns with a truly Orwellian statement: “I do not sentence you for your political views, but the extremity of those views informs the assessment of dangerousness.”
Lodder lambasted Brock for holding Nazi and other hateful values: “It is clear that you are a right-wing extremist, your enthusiasm for this repulsive and toxic ideology is demonstrated by the graphic and racist iconography which you have studied and appeared to share with others.”
Even though Lodder agreed that the defendant was older, had limited mobility, and “there was no evidence of disseminating to others,” he still sent him to prison for holding extremist views.
After the sentencing, Detective Chief Superintendent Kath Barnes, Head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East (CTPSE), warned others that Brock was going to prison because he “showed a clear right-wing ideology with the evidence seized from his possessions during the investigation . . . We are committed to tackling all forms of toxic ideology which has the potential to threaten public safety and security.”
“Toxic ideology” also appears to be the target in Ireland, with the recently proposed Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) law. It would criminalize the possession of material deemed hateful.
The law is a free speech nightmare, making “possession of harmful material” a crime as well as “condoning, denying or grossly trivializing genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace.” It expressly states the intent to combat “forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law.”
What is so striking about the law is that it allows for the prosecution of citizens for “preparing or possessing material likely to incite violence or hatred against persons on account of their protected characteristics.” That could sweep deeply into not just political but literary expression.
The expansion of such prosecutions to thought crimes is a natural extension of the anti-free speech movement that took hold of much of Europe decades ago. The decline of free speech in the United Kingdom has long been a concern for free-speech advocates.
A man was convicted for sending a tweet while drunk referring to dead soldiers. Another was arrested for an anti-police T-shirt. Another was arrested for calling the Irish boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend a “leprechaun.” Yet another was arrested for singing “Kung Fu Fighting.” A teenager was arrested for protesting outside of a Scientology center with a sign calling the religion a “cult.”
Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech or “malicious communications” remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures.
It is easy for Americans to wave off such European prosecutions by pointing to our First Amendment. However, there is a growing movement in the United States to replicate such European laws. Indeed, Democratic leaders such as Hillary Clinton have enlisted European governments to force Twitter to censor fellow citizens. Likewise, Democratic members have pushed for a new law that could be used to crackdown specifically on right-wing groups based on their ideology.
The United Kingdom is an example of the slippery slope of speech criminalization that inevitably took them to “thought crimes,” even criminal prayers. These cases should be a wake-up for all who value free speech. If such prosecutions stand, free speech literally does not have a prayer in the Western world.
Jonathan Turley is an attorney and professor at George Washington University Law School.
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