Without a Hope or a Prayer: Why the Arrest of a British Woman Outside of Abortion Clinic is a Wake-Up Call for Free Speech

This week, the arrest of British Catholic woman for ‘praying’ outside an abortion clinic has attracted international attention. However, the jailing of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, director of anti-abortion group March for Life UK, is neither surprising nor particularly rare as a denial of free speech in Great Britain. While this form of “protest” is uncommon as the basis for an arrest, free speech has been in a free fall in the UK for years. It is also a cautionary tale for those in the United States, which is facing arguably the largest anti-free speech movement in its history.

Pictures from Birmingham show Vaughan-Spruce, 45, simply standing near the abortion clinic silently praying when an officer confronts her. She was not blocking access or displaying any protest signs or material. Nevertheless, she was arrested, jailed, interrogated, and ultimately charged with four counts of violating the abortion clinic “buffer zone.”

According to reports, the West Midlands Police officer asked her “are you praying?” She responded “I might be praying in my head, but not out loud.”

That was it. She was arrested for praying “in her head” near an abortion clinic.

A recent order from September 7 made clear that praying near an abortion clinic is now a criminal act in the country.  The Birmingham City Council order says that prohibited acts includes “but is not limited to graphic, verbal or written means, prayer or counselling.”

Various individuals heralded the arrest. Dr. John Michael Leslie went on Twitter to declare “No, you’re in violation of it you repeatedly harass women going to a Family Planning Clinic who might be asking for Abortion Advice. “Praying in her head” is the spin from her supporters.”

However, legally, that is itself a dangerous pin. She was not arrested for past conduct but her current conduct, which was praying in her head.

Another poster objected that “It’s so obvious she’s martyring herself in the glare of the public as a way of publicising her beliefs, she knowingly went into that area to get arrested. You must think we’re all crackers.”

Indeed, though “crackers” does not quite capture the free speech crisis in the UK. This is not the first thought crime prosecuted in the country.

Last year, Nicholas Brock, 52, was convicted of a thought crime in Maidenhead, Berkshire. The neo-Nazi was given a four-year sentence for what the court called his “toxic ideology” based on the contents of the home he shared with his mother in Maidenhead, Berkshire.

While most of us find Brock’s views repellent and hateful, they were confined to his head and his room. Yet, Judge Peter Lodder QC dismissed free speech or free thought concerns with a truly Orwellian statement: “I do not sentence you for your political views, but the extremity of those views informs the assessment of dangerousness.”

Lodder lambasted Brock for holding Nazi and other hateful values:

“[i]t is clear that you are a right-wing extremist, your enthusiasm for this repulsive and toxic ideology is demonstrated by the graphic and racist iconography which you have studied and appeared to share with others…”

Even though Lodder agreed that the defendant was older, had limited mobility, and “there was no evidence of disseminating to others,” he still sent him to prison for holding extremist views.

After the sentencing Detective Chief Superintendent Kath Barnes, Head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East (CTPSE), warned others that he was going to prison because  he “showed a clear right-wing ideology with the evidence seized from his possessions during the investigation….We are committed to tackling all forms of toxic ideology which has the potential to threaten public safety and security.”

“Toxic ideology” also appears to be the target in Ireland with the recently proposed  Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) law. It would criminalize the possession of material deemed hateful. The law is a free speech nightmare.  The law makes it a crime of possession of harmful material” as well as “condoning, denying or grossly trivialising genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace.” The law expressly states the intent to combat “forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law.”

What is so striking about the law is that it allows for the prosecution of citizens for “preparing or possessing material likely to incite violence or hatred against persons on account of their protected characteristics.” That could sweep deeply into not just political but literary expression.

The expansion of such prosecutions to thought crimes is a natural extension of the anti-free speech movement that took hold of much of Europe decades ago. The decline of free speech in the United Kingdom has long been a concern for free speech advocates. A man was convicted for sending a tweet while drunk referring to dead soldiers. Another was arrested for an anti-police teeshirt. Another was arrested for calling the Irish boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend a “leprechaun.” Yet another was arrested for singing “Kung Fu Fighting.” A teenager was arrested for protesting outside of a Scientology center with a sign calling the religion a “cult.”

Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech or “malicious communications” remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures.

It is easy for Americans to wave off such European prosecutions by pointing to our First Amendment. However, there is a growing movement in the United States to replicate such European laws. Indeed, Democratic leaders such as Hillary Clinton have enlisted European governments to force Twitter to censor fellow citizens. Likewise, Democratic members have pushed for a new law that could be used to crackdown specifically on right-wing groups based on their ideology.

The United Kingdom is an example of the slippery slope of speech criminalization that inevitably took them to “thought crimes,” even criminal prayers. These cases should be a wake up for all who value free speech. If such prosecutions stand, free speech literally does not have a prayer in the Western world.

216 thoughts on “Without a Hope or a Prayer: Why the Arrest of a British Woman Outside of Abortion Clinic is a Wake-Up Call for Free Speech”

  1. Anyone who is ok with a police officer arresting someone who is silently praying is a bootlicking power-loving empathy-lacking lose and probable Marxist.

    Go away you horrible person. You anonymous. You condoner of oppression. Just go away

  2. America has a stronger commitment to freedom of speech than some European democracies, but Turley is being selective and alarmist, and hitting the right wing concerns of the day,as usual.
    Regarding Brock, the English newspapers quoted the judge as saying “I do not sentence you for your political views”. That was a quote Turley decided not to include. Instead, he decided to give the case his own spin. Brock had manuals on explosives, videos of beheadings, photographs of himself with weapons that may not be legal in the UK, , was found guilty by a jury, and had been arrested before for his actions not thoughts. He was convicted of having materials that would be useful for a terrorist attack. While a slippery crime, Turley seems to say that if he had had two dozen pipe bombs, the blue prints of a synagogue and a Nazi manifesto, he could only be convicted of a thought crime. The UK has tighter anti terrorist laws and was dealing with terrorism long before 911. Lord Mountbatten, who was very well known and close to the royal family, was assasinated in 1979 by the IRA.
    In Italy, Fascism is illegal, and in Germany Nazi ideology is illegal ,and they have been since after WWII, although they are legal in the US. I wonder why Turley didn’t mention that, Perhaps it’s not a Fox news hit, or doesn’t suite his hyperbolic vision. We have broader freedom of speech, but they have a really dark history with those ideas. I don’t think Turley would maintain that Germany and Italy have both been run by a Stasi like thought police since before he was born. Actually, the “main stream” political spectrums in both Italy and Germany have been far broader from left to right than here in the US.

    1. Everything you cited regarding Brock was SPEECH, not action, Manuals, video’s, photographs.

      As you note, the US and the UK are different. Your example makes that clear. In the US you can possess the Anarchists Cookbook – it is available online. You can possess the pentagon papers. You can possess the instructions to manufacture a nuclear weapon, and you may share all of that online.

      It is called free speech.

      What is disturbing is that essentially the bible for free speech. the never rebutted most compelling argument ever made for unrestricted free speech, was made by one of the most famous English Intellectuals – John Stuart Mill, in “On Liberty”

    2. One of the more evil aspects of the US War on Drugs is that you can be convicted of a crime for possessing, a kitchen scale, baggies, measuring cups and other materials that ordinary people have in their homes – if you are believed to be a drug dealer, rather than a cook.

      Has there been an actual instance of terrorism in the UK since the end of “the troubles” that was perpetrated by a Caucasian ?

    3. Europe has tighter anti-terrorists laws than the US.

      To no effect.

      There is more terrorism in the UK and EU than in the US.

      Terrorism is not random. The IRA did not engage in Terrorizing the English with no reason.

      While most of us recognize Terrorism as an illegitimate means to an end.
      Terrorism is always the consequence of a very serious political problem, where those engaged in terrorism feel they have no other voice. Whether that is true or not, is irrelevant.

      There is no where in the world that terrorism has been defeated by draconian law enforcement.

      “The Troubles” in Ireland were resolve politically, by ending the political oppression of one group by another.

      Absolutely we should not tolerate actual terrorism.

      Nor should we pretend we can make it go away by surrendering our freedom and passing and enforcing draconian laws.

      That is not an answer

      If the abridgement of liberty is not the solution to real problems of terrorism – Why do you think it will work against imagined ones ?

      Everyone who disagrees with you politically is not a terrorist.

      Treating theose who disagree with you as terrorists is only going to create actual terrorism.

      Terrorism is what you get when a disfavored political groups is silenced in all other ways.

    4. “In Italy, Fascism is illegal, and in Germany Nazi ideology is illegal ,and they have been since after WWII,”

      Because some European countries have behaved stupidly, the US should follow ?

      If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

      -John Stuart Mill


    5. 11th paragraph, starting with “While most of is…” includes the line you claim he didn’t include. Interesting how selective you are in order to argue for persecuting your enemies. It makes the rest of your diatribe suspicious and disinformational. Perhaps you should be locked up too.

    6. Turley has, in fact, mentioned multiple times in previous posts that particular views, including Naziism, are illegal in the UK.

      Brock was sentenced for his political views, and the contents of his home. It was not disseminated to others, according to the court.

      Here in the US, free speech protects both popular, and unpopular, moral, and immoral speech. People are entitled to their own opinions. Racism is a serious character flaw. And yet, BLM activists are allowed to keep bookshelves and computer files full of books, propaganda, and articles that are blatantly racist against whites. A BLM poet can fill journals with fantasies of all the white people dying or disappearing, or “All whites and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Radical feminists are not arrested for their reading materials, at home, that are blatantly misandrist. Some Americans have art in their homes glorifying mass murderers like Mao, Stalin, Chavez, and Maduro. Professors have hammer and sickle symbology in their homes. No one’s getting arrested.

      1. Amen.

        The worlds greatest intellect on the issue of free speech was English – John Stuart Mill. It is incredibly sad to see the country that was seminal is the development of the concepts of self government and freedom that are epitomized by the United states backsliding into tyrany.

  3. When these arrests happen, I don’t want to see pictures of the victim, I want to see close-ups of the Stasi officers and judges, and their names Make them famous.

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