Posted Saturday, December 23, 2000

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London, August 24, 1999

Preacher has Right to be Heard, however Irritating

FREEDOM of speech "is not worth having" unless it can cause offence, the High Court ruled yesterday in a decision championing the rights of street corner orators.

Citing Socrates and two famous Quakers, Lord Justice Sedley said "The irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and provocative have a right to be heard".

The Court quashed a conviction for obstruction against a Christian fundamentalist, Alison Redmond-Bate, 27, who was airing her views with two other female preachers on the steps of WakeÞeld Cathedral, when they fell foul of the law.

The judge said the police had agreed that the women, including Ms Redmond-Bate's mother, Jennifer, who belong to the Faith Ministries, could preach from the cathedral steps in October 1997. But when two people complained, the police warned the women not to stop passers by. They carried on preaching and a crowd of more than a hundred gathered the judge said. Some were showing hostility so the women were asked to stop preaching. When they refused they were arrested for a breach of the peace.

Ms Redmond-Bate, of Leeds, was charged with obstructing police and was convicted by WakeÞeld magistrates in February last year. She lost her appeal to the Crown Court in January.

But there was no lawful basis for the arrest or the conviction, said Lord Justice Sedley, who was sitting with Mr Justice Collins. He added:

"There was no suggestion of highway obstruction. Nobody had to stop and listen.

If they did so, they were as free to express the view that the preachers should be locked up or silenced as Ms Redmond-Bate and her companions were to breach". It had been argued that there could not be any breach of the peace if what was said was inoffensive. The judge said: "This will not do. Free speech includes not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence."

Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park demonstrated the tolerance the law extended to opinion of every kind. From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists our world has set many examples of state control of unofficial ideals.

"A central purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights has been to set close limits to any such assumed powers. We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy.

"To proceed as the Crown Court did from the fact that the free women were preaching about morality, God and the Bible, the topic not only of sermons preached on every Sunday of the year, but at least one regular daily slot on national radio to a reasonable apprehension that violence is going to erupt is with great respect not illogical."

He said the police were not justified in apprehending a breach of the peace, much less a breach of the peace for which the three women would be responsible.

The magistrates were not justified in convicting her nor the Crown Court in upholding the conviction. The police ofÞcer was not acting in the execution of his duty when he arrested the women, so Ms Redmond-Bate should not have been found guilty of obstructing him.

Pastor Philip Dacre of Faith Ministries said later:-

"This case raises a vital moral issue: "We are Christian preachers. When we see something going on in society, something sinful, we are bound by our convictions to speak out".

Related items on this website:

Lord Justice Sedley: notes on his career
Lord Justice Sedley refuses Mr Irving permission to appeal (Dec 18, 2000)
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