Lois McLatchie writes for ADF UK, a legal advocacy organization which promotes freedom of speech.
Rishi Sunak has had over 50 days as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party. By 2022 standards, this makes him something of a veteran. He inherited a party that mandated itself to “champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas”, and has long vowed to protect the rights of the British public to think and say what they believe. But in Tory Britain, a woman has just been arrested not even for speaking, but for thinking, the wrong thoughts. And it’s a policy that this government want to roll out across the country.
Isabel Vaughan-Spruce is a charity volunteer in Birmingham. Police approached her while she was stood on the street – completely silently and motionlessly. They asked her what she was doing. She said she “might” be praying inside her head. For her ‘crime’, she was searched – including, bizarrely, through her hair – arrested, interrogated by the police and charged on four counts.
Police charged Isabel for breaching a Public Space Protection Order – a local authority measure creating a censorial zone around an abortion facility that bans the “expression of approval or disapproval” of abortion, including through prayer. It now seems they are applying this literally to the nth degree – prosecuting even prayer that takes place imperceptibly inside someone’s head. I know it is a cliché to quote Orwell. But if this isn’t an arrest for ‘thoughtcrime’, then what is?
Liz Truss (remember her?) once said “freedom loving societies are not just the best places to live, they are the most successful.” Yet it was under her brief stint in power that MPs voted in Clause 9 to the Public Order Bill – the attempt to ban “advising”, “informing”, “persuading”, “occupying space” or even “expressing opinion” within 150 metres of any abortion facility, taking the principles of Birmingham council and applying it nationwide.
Under a wide-ranging piece of legislation designed to bring order to the wild behaviour of extreme climate activists, any volunteers outside abortion facilities were swept up as “protesters” and treated as being in need of banishment – even if what they are doing is perfectly peaceful, or even helpful.
Of course, any harassment against women should be against the law. But a 2018 government review into the situation outside abortion facilities shows that instances of harassment are rare, and police already have ample powers to prosecute in a targeted way. The main activities of volunteers, according to the review, are quiet or silent prayer, or offering help and charitable services that present an alternative outcome than abortion. 1 in 5 women who have abortions in our country say they did so against their will. Presenting offers of financial or practical support to those who would prefer to continue their pregnancies isn’t only perfectly legal – it’s compassionate and kind.
Ironically, the Labour Party has loudly rejected the Public Order Bill as an attempt to disproportionately crack down on freedom of protest. Yet it was the Labour Party who introduced the amendment to criminalise those who even “express opinion” near an abortion facility, and they heartily voted it in. Their hypocrisy is not only distasteful, but actively harmful.
On both sides of the political aisle, it seems we lose our heads too much when the a-word comes into play. If censorship zones were applied around townhalls to ban gender critical feminists from expressing their views, or embassies to silence the voices of dissident critics, the monstrous infringements on free speech would be shouted out. The logic, however, is the same – and all the more galling in a case where the protest was silent, personal, and born of faith.
The proof is sadly in this pudding – censorship zones do not target bad behaviour, they capture and criminalise the peaceful and the good – including the silent prayers of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce. MPs have a chance to debate whether this should really be rolled out across the nation in January. Let’s hope they take heed. Nobody should be criminalised for their thoughts. It is a shame that that even requires saying.