Manchester City Council is proposing a PSPO outside a Marie Stopes abortion clinic, which will include a prohibition on ‘protest, namely engage in any act of approval / disapproval or attempted act of approval / 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.’ While the Manifesto Club wholeheartedly supports women’s right to access abortion services without harassment or obstruction, we have grave concerns about the broad nature of this order and its impact upon freedom of speech.
Here is our response below to the consultation:
MANIFESTO CLUB RESPONSE TO MANCHESTER CITY COUNCIL PSPO
In general, it is our view that the PSPO is much too broad in scope: it criminalises peaceful protest, and infringes upon the freedoms of speech and association.
We wholeheartedly support the right of women to access abortion services without intimidation or interference. However, the causing of harassment, alarm and distress is already an offence under the Public Order Act – and we believe that this would cover any instances of intimidation of abortion service users, or any threatening or emotionally cruel speech. It is already illegal for pro-life protesters to block women entering the abortion clinic, to touch or restrain them in any way, or to themselves enter abortion clinic property. We believe that a proper enforcement of the existing criminal law would be sufficient to allow women to access abortion services without harassment or intimidation – while at the same time protecting rights to free expression in public spaces.
The PSPO goes much further than its stated aim and prevents the expression of any opinion about abortion, and even silent prayer, within a large area of public space.
We are particularly concerned about Article 1, since this prohibits a very large spectrum of expression of opinion, including silent prayer. It was a similar restriction that led to the much-shared video of a disabled man recently being arrested for praying on the grass outside an Ealing abortion clinic. If you impose this Article then the police will be obliged to arrest people for praying silently in the vicinity of the clinic.
In article 2, the term ‘interfere’ is overly broad, since it includes ‘verbal’ interference, which could just mean saying something to someone. If interference could be restricted to physical interference then it would be tighter and more justified.
Our view on Article 3 is that causing harassment is already a criminal offence under the Public Order Act, therefore we do not think this provision is additionally necessary. However, it is more justified that many of the other provisions since it at least targets harmful actions that could affect women’s right to access abortion services without interference.
We also disagree with articles 5 and 6, since these articles impose overly broad restrictions on the displaying or distributing of any images or literature on the subject of abortion. Any offensive or abusive images or text would already be prohibited under the Public Order Act. The PSPO targets a much broader area of literature, which would prevent any expression of opinion on the subject. We consider this an unnecessary restriction upon peoples rights of free expression.
The articles 4 and 7 are more justified, in that they target behaviour that could affect the daily workings of the clinic and people’s right to access services without interference. It is conceivable that amplification throughout the day would interfere with the clinic’s work; it is also reasonable that women could expect to access the clinic without being photographed or having their privacy invaded. Therefore we consider that there is some justification for these two aspects of the PSPO alone.
We do not think that corralling people into ‘protest zones’ assuages concerns for free expression. The right to free speech includes the right to choose the place and audience for this speech, so long as these are in a public place and the speech does not cause harassment or distress. It is notable that protest zones are generally only found in authoritarian states, rather than countries where the rights of free speech and association are respected.
This PSPO fails to abide by the Statutory Guidance which states the circumstances in which a PSPO can be lawfully issued. Specifically, the guidance states:
the council should give due regard to issues of proportionality: is the restriction proposed proportionate to the specific harm or nuisance that is being caused? Councils should ensure that the restrictions being introduced are reasonable and will prevent or reduce the detrimental effect continuing, occurring or recurring. In addition, councils should ensure that the Order is appropriately worded so that it targets the specific behaviour or activity that is causing nuisance or harm and thereby having a detrimental impact on others’ quality of life.
We do not consider that the provisions in this PSPO are proportionate to the harm or nuisance that is being caused, and therefore that the PSPO is therefore both unreasonable and will lay the council open to legal challenge.