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Some of them are really ridiculous, like they stand on street corners where they are likely to harass the most people and often they don’t even speak the best (by which I mean the most intelligible) English. They continually shout at passers by who are clearly not interested in their message repetitious slogans devoid of much cogency or insight like “Jesus loves you” or “Jesus died for your sins” over very poor quality amplification systems while jumping up and down and shaking their fists in the air. Often if a given passerby is trying to ignore the preacher as they walk past and not giving any flinch or reaction, they will intensify their harassment and grow louder and more forceful/emphatic in response to individuals’ attempts to ignore them.

Sometimes these are in public parks or squares where people may go to relax or read a book on a bench in the good sunshine but they amplify their harassment to make it impossible to avoid or ignore.

Please note I have nothing wrong with the idea of preaching and proselytising and would clearly distinguish this in terms of its impact on unwilling others from church preachers who genuinely care about their communities and give rigorous thought to how to enrich their members’ lives with the teachings of their faith while bringing the community members closer thereto.

Are the street preachers in clear contrast then given undue privilege in their legal treatment due to the fact that they are propagating a religious cause? Something tells me that if one were out in public jumping up and down clapping and cheering about the Flying Spaghetti Monster or even about a delusion with a less established and thus less coherent (much less founded in reality) significance than the FSM that was specifically devised by a serious intellectual to make a philosophical point, harassing the public as they passed by and not taking others’ queues as to their disinterest but instead shouting more loudly at them in response, they might be sectioned based on the fervour with which they are so spectacularly preaching such delusional idiocy with no foundation in reality.

Or they may be proceeded against for anti social behaviour by causing others’ harassment alarm and distress.

Or public order offences.

Social stunts like Sacha Baton Cohen’s Borat character who would often say to people in public outrageous things like “you Fuck my mother” “i eat your shit” to make them distressed and puzzled is probably well protected in the U.S. due to the first amendment. Likewise, it is easy to see how the 1st amendment’s explicit address of religion gives rise to special privileged treatment of preaching where religious causes are concerned.

But in the UK, free speech is not absolute, and further it seems to me that religious expression is likewise perhaps not under any provision subject to especial/privileged protections.

Is it likely that such obnoxious street preachers disturbing the public peace are subject to privileged treatment due to the general perception among the system’s various functionaries that their activity is a long and well established phenomenon/practice, so therefore it should be allowed however much it affects others because it must be protected since it is such a historically established activity?

This is not opinion based. It is a legal question about the correct and customary/actual applications of laws like the human rights act, pubic order act, anti social behaviour act, & mental health act.

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    There's quite a bit of extraneous commentary here, but I'm voting to open because OP seems to be asking a reasonably straightforward question: Do free-speech laws protect street preachers from adverse action by the government?
    – bdb484
    Apr 24 at 17:29
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    I agree with bdb484. As written this seems more a rant than a question about the law but there is a question about the law in it. I declare an interest: I spent some time drafting an answer before the question was Closed.
    – Lag
    Apr 24 at 17:33
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    @Seekinganswers I don't think it's ranting to suggest they are obnoxious or disturbing the peace or such, or outline their behaviour. The ranting is in banging on about it, like them.
    – Lag
    Apr 24 at 18:37
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    @Seekinganswers It's not opinion based, in my opinion, but it looks opinion based, because of the "ranting" of extraneous and not helpful-in-forming-an-answer (even if it's accurate) information that has to be parsed through. Or to paraphrase a judicial opinion I was reading the other day "any material information is drowned in immaterial facts".
    – sharur
    Apr 24 at 19:20
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    This question seems to be bundling a pretty reasonable inquiry (interplay of religious freedom and public order in the context of street preachers) with a pretty off-the-wall one (whether street preachers should be detained for mental health treatment). In my view the entire issue of sectioning should be dropped. Frankly, knowing people who have gone through sectioning, it comes off as quite offensive and insensitive to treat it in these terms.
    – alexg
    Apr 25 at 10:11

1 Answer 1

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"Are street preachers worthy of being sectioned?"

No - so far as I'm aware, no police officer has tried to use this power with regard to a street preacher, it doesn't seem relevant.

To be involuntarily detained, compulsorily admitted, removed or 'sectioned' under s136 Mental Health Act 1983, "Removal etc of mentally disordered persons without a warrant", the person must appear "to the constable to be suffering from mental disorder and to be in immediate need of care or control" and the constable must think it's necessary "in the interests of that person or for the protection of other persons".

"Are the street preachers ... given undue privilege in their legal treatment due to the fact that they are propagating a religious cause?"

There have been numerous arrests, prosecutions and convictions (and successful appeals) of street preachers. The question at law in a particular case is whether, given all the circumstances (including the preacher's behaviour and the public's behaviour), the interference with the preacher's (Human Rights Act) rights is necessary, proportionate and in pursuit of a legitimate aim.

Every public authority (police, prosecution, courts, local authority etc) is required to give effect to the scheduled rights in the Human Rights Act 1998 unless statute makes that impossible. In this context, usually the two rights engaged are Articles 9 and 10.

Article 9 Freedom of thought, conscience and religion

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

  2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Article 10 Freedom of expression

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

  2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

So speech and religion have some statutory protection but, like most of the Convention rights, they are 'qualified' rights. Their second paragraphs say when the state can lawfully interfere with the rights. For an interference to be lawful, it must be prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society; proportionate (i.e. no more than necessary); in pursuit of a 'legitimate aim' in the second paragraph; and rationally connected to the legitimate aim.

In this context the legitimate aims are usually "the protection of public order" or "the prevention of disorder or crime" and the "prescribed by law" part are the Public Order Act and other statutory powers of the police. Interferences, infringements or infringing measures are things like dispersal notices, arrests, prosecutions, convictions and sentences (community orders, fines or imprisonments).

The escalation commonly goes from the police asking the preacher to choose their words more carefully or leave, then order to leave, then arrest.

The media has reported on a number of arrests, prosecutions, convictions and appeals. Try searching the web for "UK street preacher arrest". Be aware that some results are for websites with undeclared involvements with or links to defending the accused preachers.

I've put some names and links below and here is a freely available judgment that contains discussion of all the above, describing that process of weighing up that every part of the state must do when it infringes on the Convention rights: Overd & Ors v The Chief Constable of Avon And Somerset Constabulary [2021] EWHC 3100 (QB) (19 November 2021). The judgment also cites other judgments to which it links, which may be of interest.

As backgound the four men, Overd, Stockwell, Karns and Clarke, were arrested while preaching at Broadmead shopping centre in Bristol in July 2016. The police had received complaints from the public about the content of the preaching. On arrival, the police officers perceived imminent public disorder.

The four were detained, then charged under s5 Public Order Act; the case against Karns was dropped before court and the other three were tried; Clark submitted there was no case to answer and he was successful; Overd and Stockwell were convicted but their convictions were overturned on appeal.

Subsequently, in December 2020 the four sued the police, alleging breaches of Articles 9, 10 and/or 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, wrongful arrest, assault/trespass to the person/battery, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and misfeasance in public office. Their claim was dismissed on all counts, they appealed and this judgment is in that appeal which was also dismissed.

Other examples (but not judgments, only media reports):

In Leeds in June 2021, David McConnell was preaching about "adulterers, drunkards, homosexuals," when he was challenged by a transwoman. McConnell repeatedly referred to her as a "man", a "man in woman's clothing" and a "gentleman". In September 2022 he was convicted of intent to cause harassment, alarm or distress, sentenced to a 12-month community order with 80 hours unpaid work and ordered to pay fines totalling £715. A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said McConnell's words "crossed the line between a legitimate expression of his religious views, to become a distressing and threatening personal attack" (BBC).

In March 2023 his conviction was overturned. The court found there was no evidence McConnell intended "harassment, alarm and distress" (BBC).

In November 2020 John Dunn was preaching on Swindon High Street when two women, holding each other's hands, walked past him. He said, "I hope you are sisters," to which they replied that they were in a same-sex mariage. Dunn responded, "it says in the Bible that homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God." The women made a complaint to the police.

Dunn was subsequently charged under s5 Public Order Act. The CPS eventually dropped the case but not before causing some controversy when it was made public that a prosecution document sent to the defence said some parts of the Bible are "abusive" and "simply no longer appropriate in modern society and which would be deemed offensive if stated in public." The CPS later said this was not its official position.

In April 2021, John Sherwood was preaching outside Uxbridge Station in London when police officers approached him and said they had been told he had made homophobic comments. They arrested Sherwood under s5 Public Order Act for allegedly causing alarm or distress. (Daily Mail)

In April 2022, Sherwood was tried and acquitted. Apparently his defence centred on Article 10 (freedom of expression) - I cannot find a judgment.

In March 2018 a Canadian preacher was arrested outside Barking Station in London. A female passerby had complained to the police that he had made homophobic comments. After being detained for 20 hours, he was released without charge.

Some preachers are privileged in terms of their legal resources - some for example have been aided by the Christian Legal Centre (of Christan Concern), which has also involved itself in numerous cases ranging from 'gay cakes' to embryonic stem cell research. This Radio 4 documentary by Joshua Rozenberg, A Tale of Belief and the Courts, may be of interest.

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  • It seems there is a massive wave of assault on freedom of expression currently underway Apr 27 at 9:53
  • It has just occurred to me what is wrong with this answer: it seems to focus on precedent cases which illustrate that preachers are not given Carte Blanche due to being preachers in cases where they cause offence (H/A/D) to liberals based on (the ideological character of) their content. But I think this tends to be a variety of preacher that is perhaps more thoughtful, considered, and/or principled in what they believe and for them it is all about the substance of the beliefs and the right to preach these (like opposition to homosexuality or to premarital sex or abortion). May 16 at 12:26
  • So, compared to pro-abortion demonstrators, or to anti-petrol activists, it seems the case is clear that they are not privileged, and if anything perhaps even treated more harshly. But if I’m not mistaken often these anti abortion activists are just silently holding a placard outside of whatever locale like an abortion clinic, but rarely jumping and dancing and shouting and cheering indiscriminately at anyone who passes by, and it is generally just on street corners likely to reach the most people. May 16 at 12:38
  • So they are certainly no more privileged than eg JSO activists who may conceivably demonstrate outside a butcher or petrol station to let the customers know that they view them as murderers. But what if instead of comparing the silent placard holding anti abortion activist to a silent placard holding anti-petrol activist, we compare a loud and boisterous Christian preacher to a loud and boisterous church of Flying Spaghetti Monster (or, even less coherent still, a church of swimming macaroni witch) preacher who are both disturbing the peace of hundreds upon hundreds of passers by in the same May 16 at 12:44
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    @Seekinganswers The "empirical basis" of the speech seems irrelevant. Everyone in the jurisdiction has article 9 and 10 rights and state interference with these rights is limited by the constraints in their respective second paragraphs as quoted above. Of course certain behaviour can hypothetically amount to a criminal offence for which the person may be prosecuted and tried. I provided some examples of pertinent and real cases.
    – Lag
    May 16 at 12:59

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