DO YOU BELIEVE IN FREEDOM OF SPEECH? DO YOU? DO YOU REALLY?

Our supporters got up bright and early today for a quick but lively demo before the start of Abort 67’s court case, where Kathryn Attwood and Andy Stephenson are charged with public order offences for displaying material that is ‘threatening abusive or insulting’ outside BPAS Wistons clinic in Brighton. It was worth getting out of bed because the Sunday Times sent a photographer, and Andy and Kathryn happily posed for him, basking in their media glory. We cannot lie, we posed too. We even posed together. It was all very civil.

Image

We headed into Brighton Magistrates’ Court where Abort67’s legal team seemed to get stuck in a temporal anomaly as they opened their cross examination of each prosecution witness with the same machine gun question ‘DO YOU BELIEVE IN FREEDOM OF SPEECH?’

The answer was a ‘yes’ from all witnesses, but it was a qualified ‘yes’ which demanded a context. Worryingly, this answer seemed beyond the lawyers’ comprehension. They live in a monochrome world, devoid of nuance or individual circumstances. It’s a cold world.

In their opening comments they boldly cried ‘freedom of speech to say something inoffensive is no freedom of speech at all’, defending their absolute right to display the most offensive materials in the pusuit of ‘truth’, and their right to offend everybody in the world ever.

The Chief Inspector in charge of policing protests at the time disagreed. He said people who complained were ‘very angry or upset’ and that officers saw the images were ‘frequently leaving people in tears’. He asserted the ‘images went beyond just asking questions and represented disorderly conduct’.

The legal team seemed to suspect some kind of giant police conspiracy against them (we’re sure the evidence for this will come out soon), and they aren’t too impressed with us either. ‘Citizens who are politically opposed to the campaign simply have to say we’re terribly offended and freedom of speech is silenced’.

Abort67’s legal team repeatedly claimed that the witness statements were subjective, as if this were some kind of fault on the witness’s part. They seemed incapable of understanding what Section 5 of the Public Order Act is designed to do, namely protect people from harassment, alarm or distress. Not everybody is alarmed by the same things. We think (but we’re not legal experts) that this might be called subjectivity.

We heard from a delivery driver, who had been moved almost to tears as he waited at the lights on Old Shoreham Road, unable to look away from the (allegedly) 10 week old dismembered aborted foetus, blown up in full colour to 8ft by 4ft, and plastered on the wall outside BPAS’ Wistons clinic. The gruesome image reminded him of his wife’s abortion on medical grounds 25 years ago, and the child he never had. ‘It still upsets me thinking about it. I’m supposed to be a man but it really upset me’ and ‘it rekindled memories that I didn’t want to recall. I had put it behind me.’

The legal team were unmoved by this, offering no condolences, then tried to upset him again by showing him more graphic images of dead babies and mutilated torsoes from other (Palestine) protests. He said the Abort67 image was different. ‘I felt like ripping it down, it really did make me cross, I felt it needed to be taken down. I asked the police what would happen if I did and they said they’d have to arrest me. If the police weren’t there I would have ripped it down.’

The next witness, who was bringing his wife and three month old baby to Wistons’ for a pre-termination check, was given the same frosty treatment. We heard how how seeing the image had left his wife devastated. ‘It caused my partner a great deal of distress. It was a distressing time anyway’. Police officers later testified that he was pale, shaking and on the verge of tears when he came over to them to ask them to take the images down. He said ‘I think it was offensive. I don’t think it’s right. It felt like intimidation.’

We saw nothing of Abort67’s supposed concern for life today in court. Not for the lives of the many people who repeatedly complained to the police of the distress, upset, and alarm caused by Abort67’s ‘displays’. In fact they laughably insisted on the court referring to them not as protesters, but as an ‘educational group’.

The police testimony centred of the allegedly incorrect use of Section 19 of PACE to seize Abort 67’s camcorder and banner. Whilst this seems to highlight a worrying lack of training for some of Sussex Police’s officers, the testimony did at least confirm that Abort67 were filming outside the clinic continuously on the day they were arrested.

The case continues until 18th September.

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4 thoughts on “DO YOU BELIEVE IN FREEDOM OF SPEECH? DO YOU? DO YOU REALLY?

  1. Chris Ranmore says:

    “the testimony did at least confirm that Abort67 were filming outside the clinic continuously on the day they were arrested.”

    Funny that – Abort67 claimed the opposite when they were asked about it on their Facebook page.

  2. […] for acrimony and personal abuse, particularly given that we were speaking on the eve of the trial of two activists from anti-abortion organisation Abort 67 for public order offences. The issue of what constitutes legitimate protest against abortion was about to be contested in […]

  3. Bob says:

    When William Wilberforce attempted to ban the slave trade he showed drawings (no photography in those days) of the dreadful conditions slaves were kept in, he did that in an attempt to change people’s minds.

    When the northern abolitionists in pre-civil war America attempted to change people’s minds about slavery they showed photos of the scarred backs of slaves who had been flogged.

    When anti-fox hunting campaigners showed photos of mutilated foxes they did it to chnage people’s minds.

    All of these examples are considered to be legitimate expressions of free speech – why then is this protest by Abort 67 considered to be wrong?

    • Alex says:

      Hi Bob,
      I think in this case it is because of the location of the protests. Near such vulnerable people was not nice.

      I am not sure the scenarios you give are good examples as the people they upset were not those in the vulnerable position of doing what they felt they had to do(I could be wrong about the foxes, no one asked them).

      Freedom of expression I hope goes hand in hand with freedom from intermediation.

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