Bristol street preachers win permission to appeal over police arrests

19 October 2021

Four Christian preachers have won the right to appeal a judgment that ruled they had been lawfully arrested for preaching in Bristol City Centre.

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the four preachers – Mike Overd, Don Karns, Mike Stockwell and AJ Clarke – had originally brought claims against Avon and Somerset police for: assault, false imprisonment and infringement of their Human Rights.

The case raises significant issues on the right to freedom of speech and the freedom of Christian preachers in the UK to manifest their religious beliefs and to have the right to freedom of assembly in public. The appeal will be heard by a High Court Judge sitting at the Bristol Court Centre this Thursday 21 October and Friday 22 October.

Body cam footage reveals shocking arrest

At the centre of the case is a dramatic incident captured on body cam video footage revealing the shocking arrest of Mr Overd on 6 July 2016. The four preachers had been preaching on Christian beliefs, sin and life after death. On a number of occasions the preachers engaged with hecklers, and, over time, a large crowd gathered to listen.

However, during the course of the preaching, a few within the crowd turned volatile, which was primarily due to the behaviour of known criminals who began to intimidate and shut down the preachers.

Instead of dealing with abusive and threatening members of the crowd, on arrival, police officers arrested all four preachers on the basis of the reports that members of the public had been ‘offended’ by the preaching.

‘Why have you arrested me?’

In the video footage, the arresting officer, PC Phillipou, said to Mr Overd after his arrest: “There is a line of freedom of speech … you were aggravating people … challenging homophobia … challenging Muslims…”

To which Mr Overd says: “We were just saying what the Bible says.”

The policeman says: “That’s fine,” to which Mr Overd responds: “Then why have you arrested me?”

PC Phillipou was recorded admitting that he did not know why Mr Overd had been arrested and had to call colleagues for answers.

The four preachers were eventually acquitted of all charges and launched a civil action against the police for damages.

‘Prospect of success’

After their case was heard in December 2020, Judge Ralton commented: “There is the tension between freedom of expression on the one hand and harassment, alarm and distress caused by the expression.”

He concluded that he had sympathy with both the street preachers and the police, but ultimately ruled that officers had not acted unlawfully when they arrested, and detained the preachers. Therefore he dismissed the preachers’ claims.

However, appealing the ruling to the High Court, Mr Justice Henshaw granted permission to appeal, ruling: “Seems to me that the Claimants have a real prospect of success on their contention that the very limited second-hand information which the arresting officers had about the actual contents of the Claimants’ speeches … did not provide grounds for reasonable suspicion that the Claimants were committing or had committed a racially or religiously aggravated public order offence.”

He added: “Rather than this being a case of the Claimants’ speech being so provocative that members of the crowd might ‘without behaving wholly unreasonably’ be moved to violence (Redmond-Bate), the main problem lay with a number of audience members already known to be dangerous who were themselves liable to instigate unlawful violence.”

Freedom to preach

Ahead of the hearing, Mr Overd commented: “We are very pleased that the judge has given us permission to appeal.

“The police must be held to account for their actions. The freedom to preach the message of the gospel on the streets of the UK to the lost is one of our fundamental rights in this country. If we lose that right, we will begin to lose every other freedom.”

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which is supporting the four preachers, said: “Mr Overd and his friends are motivated by love. They want to share the good news of Jesus with people who might not otherwise hear it. Sometimes that means addressing the false claims of other religions or ideologies.

“The freedom to express only that which society deems inoffensive is not freedom at all.

The police should be defending the freedom of speech, not clamping down on it. This is an important case for Christian freedom on our streets and we will stand with these four men until they receive justice.”

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