Two Christian street preachers have been found not guilty of inciting public disorder at Bristol Crown Court. In February, Michael Stockwell and Michael Overd were convicted at Bristol Magistrates Court of an offence under the Crime and Disorder Act, after police claimed that the crowd around them became disorderly as a result of their preaching. They appealed to the Crown Court and after a 3 day hearing on Friday were found not guilty of religiously aggravated harassment.
Barnabas Fund provided an expert witness, who demonstrated that the content of their preaching was largely quotations from the King James Bible (the “Authorised Version”). However, at their trial in February, the lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) claimed that this was irrelevant, arguing that publicly quoting from the King James Bible in modern Britain should "be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter".
Serious questions must now be asked about the conduct of both Avon and Somerset Police, who arrested the preachers, and the CPS. Barnabas Fund has seen the official transcript of the video recording that the two men made of their preaching. The preachers were clearly attracting a crowd of disorderly hecklers who were swearing at and abusing them. Yet none of the hecklers were arrested – only the street preachers who, whilst robust in stating the Biblical teaching, were respectful towards those asking questions.
However, even if people express their ideas very strongly, or even offensively, they are still entitled to freedom of speech. Not all Christians will be comfortable with the style of the men’s preaching. However, if those people are silenced, the next to be silenced will be people saying the same things in a gentler way.
It is also clear from the transcript of the preaching that much of the heckling centred on questions about Islam, and the question must be asked as to whether some hecklers were deliberately seeking to set them up. If so, then what the police have effectively done by arresting the preachers is to enforce the Islamist agenda of prohibiting any criticism of Islam.
The actions of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must also come under scrutiny. If the CPS felt that the manner in which the men were delivering their preaching was causing a disturbance, such as by being too loud, then they could have prosecuted them under nuisance laws. Instead, they chose to prosecute them for the content of their preaching. Consequently, as the preachers’ defence solicitor Michael Phillips commented in February, the case had become in effect a "modern day heresy trial".
This is a very important verdict. Had the men been convicted and subsequent appeals turned down, it risked setting a legal precedent which would have introduced a form of censorship on the public reading of the Bible – which is what the CPS lawyer argued the court should rule. Clearly the CPS have very serious questions to answer.