This Monday, four Christian preachers, known as ‘the Bristol Four’, will challenge Avon and Somerset Police over their brutal arrests following a dramatic incident in July 2016.
Beginning on Monday 7 December at Bristol County Court, Mike Overd, Don Karns, Mike Stockwell and AJ Clarke will bring claims against the police for: assault, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, misfeasance in a Public Office, and infringement of their Human Rights, in particular articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention of 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.
One of the preachers, Mike Overd, will also challenge the police on what his Christian Legal Centre lawyers describe as an eight year ‘sustained campaign of harassment’ against him.
The harassment has included one police sergeant appearing on local BBC television in 2014 to encourage business owners “if they’re offended” by Mr Overd’s preaching, “to record any evidence on their mobile phone and send it to us.”
Rather than reducing crime in Taunton, this led to an increase in abuse against Mr Overd from members of the public. No video evidence was ever submitted to the police which led to a conviction against him.
Dramatic video footage
The case primarily centres on a dramatic piece of body cam video footage revealing the shocking arrest of Mr Overd in Bristol City Centre on 6 July 2016.
That day, Mr Overd and his three friends were preaching outside Bristol’s Broadmead Shopping Centre, ironically near the statute of John Wesley (who known for his street preaching). The four took it in turns to preach, and as they did, a crowd gathered.
At points, the crowd was loud and aggressive, some swore and were abusive towards the men. However, the vast majority of the crowd wished to engage in lively debate with the preachers. Members of the public debated all manner of topics, the differences between Islam and Christian belief, sin and life after death.
After the gospel had been proclaimed for at least a couple of hours police officers said the amplification needed to be turned off. Another speaker had set up, across the precinct, to speak about Islam and the police officer had decided competing amplification was unwelcome. The Christians turned off their speaker.
However, unexpectedly mounted police arrived on the scene and put a stop to the public speaking by positioning their horses between the speakers and onlookers.
Seeing his friend moved aside by the police on horseback, Mr Overd stepped up to preach again and was told by another officer, PC Phillipou, that he was “causing a disturbance” and was “not welcome”.
The officer told Mr Overd that he was going to give him a Dispersal Notice, but instead of doing so, video footage reveals Mr Overd being brutally pulled to floor and screaming in pain. He was then handcuffed and dragged off to a police van and held in police custody for over seven hours.
Why have you arrested me?
The policeman said to Mr Overd: “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?”
In the footage the policeman admits, when it is suggested by Mr Overd, that he does not know what Mr Overd is being arrested for. PC Phillipou then had to radio colleagues for answers.
Two other preachers, both of whom were visiting from the US, were arrested because they could not give an address to the police as they could not remember where they were staying.
All four men were detained in custody for over six hours following the incident and were questioned extensively at a later date before being charged.
During the trial that followed, the prosecutor in court said that quoting parts of the King James Bible in modern Britain, as the preachers did, should be considered ‘abusive’ and ‘a criminal matter’.
All four men were eventually acquitted of all charges. There has never been an apology or any admittance of wrongdoing from Avon and Somerset police.
Public preaching a fundamental right
Ahead of the hearing, Mr Overd said: “We have faced no alternative but to bring this case as the police must be held to account for their actions for what they did in July 2016 and moreover for their actions over the past eight years.
“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.
“I believe I should be free to express views of public interest, including on culture or morality. I never use profanity, I do not attack people, however I accept that I do criticise ideologies, other religions and certain sexual practises. Ultimately free speech is worthless without the freedom to offend.
“The attitude and approach from the police is that if they receive a report that a Christian is being ‘offensive’, they turn up arrest first, ask questions later. There has to be a cultural shift in British policing, not just in Somerset, but across the UK.”
‘Offence’ is subjective
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, 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.
“Robust debate is often necessary, especially when objections are being raised or abuse is hurled. We shouldn’t be afraid of it.
“The aggressive treatment of Mr Overd and his friends by the police and prosecution is shocking. The police should be defending freedom of speech, not clamping down on it.
“The standing point for the police is whether people are ‘offended’. This is an entirely subjective concept and cannot be used as the primary means to decide whether lawful preaching can be stopped and the preachers deprived of their freedom. Any suggestion that there is a right not to be offended must be strongly resisted. In today’s democracy, we need the freedom to debate, challenge and disagree.
“We cannot allow the gospel to be shut out of public debate, and that is what is at stake in this crucial case.”
Find out more about Mike OverdFind out more about The Bristol Four