Extremism Disruption Orders

The National Secular Society is a founding member of the Defend Free Speech campaign, formed in response to Government plans to introduce sweeping new powers to combat extremism.

Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) will allow courts to ban someone from speaking in public or on social media, restrict their freedom of association, and ban them from taking up various positions – such as a school governor.

The proposals risk capturing a whole range of behaviour and speech which fits under a broad, ill-defined conception of 'extremism'.

George Osborne has said that for a court to serve an Extremism Disruption Order an individual must have participated in "activities that spread, incite, promote or justify hatred against a person or group of persons on the grounds of that person's or group of persons' disability, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and/or transgender identity."

This is an unclear definition which sets a very vague threshold. We are also particularly concerned that in an effort to appear 'fair' and avoid the impression that EDOs only or primarily target Islamist extremists, that the broad measures will catch, for instance, Christian street preachers or those defending the right to criticise and ridicule religion. Evangelical street preachers have already faced prosecution for their sermons. Additional restrictions on free speech can only further jeopardise and chill freedom of expression.

As a society we are already far too prone to silencing opinions in fear of them causing 'offence', and it seems inevitable that EDOs will encompass people far beyond the Government's intent.

We are also concerned by reports that the orders would be applied on the "balance of probabilities", rather than the higher standard required in criminal trials of "beyond reasonable doubt".

We recognise the need to tackle religious extremism, but existing powers already exist to meet this end. For example, the Public Order Act 1986 – which criminalises the incitement of violence, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 ­– which creates an offence of inciting hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion, and the Terrorism Act 2006 – which prohibits statements that "glorify" terrorism. The Government is yet to identify a legitimate target which could not already be captured by existing law.

Reports have indicated that EDOs would be used against those who "spread hate but do not break laws". This is absurd by definition. If breaking the law is not a trigger for the state to act, at what moment does the state intervene?

Instead of new powers for the state, we would like to see more effective use of existing powers, and a robust defence of human right and freedom of speech to promote what the Government term 'British values' in the face of religious extremism.

We believe that objectionable ideas should be subjected to challenge, debate, scrutiny and ridicule. Society has a range of tools with which to tackle extremism; reaching immediately for new legal powers is short-sighted and risks undermining the values the Government seeks to promote.

Are you an extremist?

Reform Clause 1: Feel free to annoy me!

The Government is introducing a new anti-social behaviour law outlawing "annoying" behaviour. The new law, contained in clause 1 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, would introduce injunctions suppressing behaviour deemed to be potentially "annoying", however vague the justification.

"Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance" (IPNAs) would replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), which had been introduced under the Labour government. Whilst in order for an ASBO to be issued, a court has to be satisfied that someone had at least caused or threatened to cause "harassment, alarm or distress" to someone else — and that the order was "necessary" to protect the victim — the clause 1 would allow a court to impose sweeping curbs on people's liberty if it thinks they are "capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person", and so long as it is "just and convenient" to do so.

We argue that the nuisance or annoyance test encompasses a too-wide range of behaviour, and is too imprecise to allow people to understand what is expected of them. The proposed law does not include any clear definition of what is deemed to be annoying, or any safeguards against its abuse: it includes no defence of 'reasonableness', requires only a civil burden of proof, and would give the police powerful new dispersal powers.

Whilst we are sympathetic to the Government looking to control the problem anti-social behaviour, we are deeply concerned that the nuisance or annoyance test contained in Clause 1 is far too wide-ranging and could catch all manner of innocent, if slightly irritating behaviour. The nuisance or annoyance test is in fact already contained in law, but applies exclusively within social housing context only.

By the Government proposing to extend the concept of annoying to all forms of public activity the concern is that, because clause 1 is so-wide ranging and the concepts "annoying" and "nuisance" inherently subjective and vague, people going about their ordinary business, such as charity collectors, protestors, carol singers, street pastors could be classed as "annoying" and therefore be taken to courts.

We believe that the state should not be in the business of outlawing annoying behaviour in such a wide-ranging way, and that clause 1 fails to strike a reasonable balance between protecting the public from anti-social behaviour and protecting essential freedoms. Legislation that criminalises "annoying" behaviour represents a serious threat to public protest and free speech; freedom of expression includes the freedom to annoy, and to legislate otherwise would undermine one of the most precious freedoms we have.

That is why, as we did with the successful Reform Section 5 campaign, we are working with the Christian Institute and other civil liberty groups to campaign against the inclusion of clause 1 in the Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing bill.

A number of prominent groups and people have also voiced serious reservations about Clause 1. Former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald QC, has described the Government's plans for these new civil injunctions as amounting to gross state interference with people's private lives and basic freedoms. Organisations such as Liberty and Justice have also expressed great concern about clause 1 of the bill, as has the Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights.

For more information visit the campaign website at reformclause1.org.uk

Follow the campaign on Twitter @ReformClause1

Reform Section 5: Feel free to insult me!


The Reform Section 5 campaign succeeded in its aim to amend Section 5. The change is now incorporated in Section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which will come into force on 1 February 2014.

Who should decide whether words, posters or ideas are insulting? Individuals? The police? A judge? Should it ever be a criminal matter? It might surprise you to know that under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, the police and the courts can decide if you or someone else might feel insulted.

Did we really need the police and the courts to deal with insults? Should we not just accept that the risk of insult is a fair price to pay for living in a society which values free speech? We think so, and here's why.

"Insulting words or behaviour" were outlawed by Section 5, and this had a chilling effect on free speech right across our country, in a wide range of communities. The law rightly protects us against unjust discrimination, incitement and violence. It shouldn't have been used to protect us from having our feelings hurt.

That's why we worked alongside the Christian Institute, The Peter Tatchell Foundation and many others on a campaign to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act to remove the word 'insulting'. Removing "insulting' will afford greater protection to freedom of expression – for both the religious and non-religious.

The law rightly protects the public against unjust discrimination, incitement and violence – but that the law does not need to protect us from having our feelings hurt.

Find out more at the Reform Section 5 Campaign website

Rowan Atkinson's speech at Reform Section 5 Parliamentary reception