In Britain, you can be arrested for a thought crime. No, really.
In the past few months, several people have been arrested for praying silently outside British abortion clinics. Why? They violated a protection order which effectively creates a strict censorship zone around the facility. While the protection orders were intended to curb aggressive protests or heckling of women seeking services, they stifle a much broader category of speech—and thought.
Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) were introduced as part of the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act. Under this law, certain jurisdictions can obtain orders that limit a wide variety of speech and conduct. For example, cities have used PSPOs to ban "foul language," enact curfews for minors, and ban the homeless from sleeping in public.
In September 2022, the city of Birmingham obtained such an order for one of the city's abortion clinics. Under the order, those on the public sidewalk and roads next to the clinic are barred from "engaging in any act of approval or disapproval or attempted act of approval or disapproval, with respect to issues related to abortion services, by any means. This includes but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling."
As a result of the rule's ridiculously broad restrictions, one woman was arrested in December for silently praying outside the Birmingham clinic—an encounter captured in a viral video. While the scale of the problem on a national level is unclear, at least one other abortion clinic in the country has obtained a similar order—leading local police to fine one man for praying silently nearby.
Following the enactment of the Birmingham order, local priest Father Sean Gough decided to take an action that, based on a reading of the order, should not have been prohibited. Last year, he stood nearby the clinic, holding a sign that read "Praying for Freedom of Speech." Because the sign had nothing to do with abortion, he says that police at first told him that he wasn't breaking the rules.
However, according to The Pillar, local police eventually charged Gough with violating the law and "intimidating service users." He also faced a second charge because his car, which was parked within the enforcement zone, had a bumper sticker reading "Unborn Lives Matter" on it.
"At no point did I ever think that I was in breach—and I still don't—of any law or regulation," Gough told The Pillar. "I was praying for freedom of speech on that occasion, which is a lawful thing to do."
According to The Pillar, while the police eventually dropped Gough's charges, they also made it clear that they could reinstate his charges at any time. For that reason, Gough has decided to mount a legal challenge to his charges. "I want my name to be cleared. And by pursuing an acquittal, I want that declaration to be stated clearly by the courts that I'm not guilty, I haven't broken any laws," he told The Pillar.
He is supported by Alliance Defending Freedom U.K., a Christian legal group also supporting the woman arrested for silent prayer outside the Birmingham abortion clinic.
"Though charges were dropped after several weeks due to 'insufficient evidence,' [Gough] has been warned that further evidence relating to the charges may soon be forthcoming, implying the entire grueling process could soon restart from the beginning," Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), said in a Thursday press release. "This is a clear instance of the process becoming the punishment and creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression in the UK."
Unfortunately, it's doubtful that this issue is likely to go away any time soon. Last week, the House of Lords joined the House of Commons in approving a law that would make it a crime to "interfere" with abortion services. While the law does not include prayer in its definition of "interference," it does ban a broad range of speech that "informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means."
Through their PSPO, the Birmingham city government got what it wanted. Pretty much any pro-life protest you can imagine is illegal under the city's regulations. But in the process, they've created a restriction on speech so broad that renders it criminal to have prayers in your head while passing by a local abortion clinic—a gross violation of basic civil liberties.
"I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me," Gough said. "How can it be a crime for a priest to pray?"
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