Court rejects draconian police measures seeking to silence Christian preacher5 October 2020 Issued by: Christian Concern
A High Court has today, Monday 5 October, rejected a heavy-handed attempt by police to prevent a Christian preacher from preaching on the streets of Avon and Somerset.
A civil injunction application, brought by Avon and Somerset Police against Christian preacher, Mike Overd, claimed that draconian measures were needed to suppress his preaching as it caused “significant risk or harm to others” and even suggested that lives might be at risk.
The application, made under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014, accused Mr Overd of repeatedly ‘engaging in anti-social behaviour’ while preaching from the Bible in Avon and Somerset.
If granted, the order would have threatened Mr Overd with arrest, imprisonment, and contempt of court if he disobeyed the six proposed orders in the injunction.
Today, however, judge HHJ Cotter QC, sitting as a High Court Judge in Bristol Magistrates Court, only stopped Mr Overd from using amplification when preaching and prohibited Mr Overd from calling abortionists ‘murderers’ until July 2022. The judge allowed the interim injunction granted in July to run for two years, after which it will expire.
Responding to the ruling, Mr Overd said: “It is sad that the injunction was brought against me in the first place, but I am pleased that the police having considered the evidence that we put forward and arguments raised by my lawyers, recognised that so many of the restrictions that they had initially asked for, were completely unnecessary.
“I have faced nearly constant harassment by the authorities for preaching for nearly 10 years. Everything has been tried by the police to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for me to preach.
“This is the second time the police have brought an application for an injunction against me, and they are running out of options. I never called anyone a murderer, so I was happy to agree not to do this. I am happy not to use an amp, because I have a pretty loud voice and I appreciate that not everyone wants to hear the message.
“It is very concerning that the police see Christian preachers as a problem, even an enemy, when I and other preachers like me are just saying what the Bible says.”
The Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting Mr Overd, welcomed the ruling but says the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 is being increasingly used by police to suppress legitimate freedom of speech.
Bible preaching puts ‘lives at risk’
The injunction aimed to prohibit Mr Overd from:
- using an amplifier when preaching and also his companions
- using a soap box in order to preach from an elevated position
- using visual aids and placards, such as signs which say ‘repent’, ‘abortion is murder’, or to show medically validated images of the reality of abortion
- going within 80 yards of an abortion clinic in Taunton for any reason
- preaching in a single town or parish for more than 20 minutes a day
- ‘breaching the peace’ through any words or actions in a public space.
The application claimed that Mr Overd “engages or threatens to engage” in anti-social behaviour and that his preaching “threatens violence” and could cause “significant risk or harm” to others.
At a previous County Court hearing, PC Charles Gear’s evidence even went as far as to conclude that: “if the injunction is not granted…this will empower Mr Overd to ‘put lives at risk.”
Mr Overd is known for his passionate Bible-based preaching that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven, that no other religion is true and for promoting sexual purity, marriage between one man and one woman and that life begins at conception. Regularly people thank him for his preaching.
One complaint against Mr Overd was that he had held a sign which read ‘abortion is murder’ outside Millstream House Abortion Clinic in Taunton. An employee of the clinic, run by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), claimed that he was harassing clients, which he emphatically denied.
At an earlier preliminary hearing, a number of other tenuous witness statements from members of the public were heard. However, HHJ Cotter QC ruled that the only restrictions that should be placed on Mr Overd should be a ban on him using an amplifier when preaching and that he could not call anyone a ‘murderer’ within 80 yards of Millstream House Abortion clinic. However, he was permitted to hold a sign saying ‘abortion is murder.’
Since 2011, Mr Overd has been prosecuted five times and arrested four times by Avon and Somerset police. Each time has walked away from court without a conviction.
He has also been interviewed on a voluntary basis, outside of arrest, on three separate occasions and has been issued with four Section 35 dispersal orders.
In response to the continued attempts to suppress his preaching, Mr Overd is set to bring a claim in December 2020 against the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset police for harassment, false imprisonment, assault, malicious prosecution, and infringement of his rights under the Human Rights Act 1998.
Freedom of Speech under attack
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “As Christians, we love and value the work that the police do in Avon and Somerset and around the country.
“However, the police have been given tremendous power that must be exercised responsibly and within the law.
“What we have found at the Christian Legal Centre is that police around the country often believe that if someone is offended by a message that they don’t agree with, a crime must have been committed.
“This simply is not the case and has led to many false arrests and prosecutions. It has to be accepted that Mike’s messages can be hard-hitting, but it is not the place of the state to police his message.
“We welcome today’s ruling, but Mike’s case shows that unless we stand up for the preachers, there is a real risk that eventually they will come for the ‘moderate’ Christians; the pastors who preach and the everyday Christians who talk to their friends about controversial subjects.”