A heckler’s veto on Christian street preaching in the UK

In a guest post, Kelly-Ann Cannon, Senior Lecturer in Law at Northampton University, looks at some recent cases on street preaching.

In Britain, there have been a number of incidents in which Christians have been prevented from preaching in public spaces by the police. For example, the recent incident of Pastor Dwayne Lopez in Uxbridge garnered much media attention. Pastor Lopez was asked to stop preaching by several Metropolitan Police officers because it had been reported by an individual that they found him to be offensive.

This is not the only example in which there has been media attention. There was the case of Angus Cameron, who was arrested in Scotland for alleged homophobic statements. Mr Cameron was given a non-crime hate incident by Police Scotland, but eventually, with the support of the Christian Institute, Police Scotland removed the incident against him, and he was awarded £5,500 in damages and £9,400 in legal costs.

It raises the question as to whether street preaching has become an intolerable form of religious manifestation in public and whether the power of a “heckler’s veto” is restricting this manifestation. Organisations such as Christian Concern and the Christian Institute claim that Christians are being marginalised, limiting their manifestation of religion. Mr Overd from “The Bristol Four” told Christian Concern that

“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”.

If spreading the gospel in public spaces is perceived as a fundamental right in the UK, why is it being challenged by the police so frequently?

Research conducted by the UK Evangelical Alliance in 2015, “Talking Jesus”, claimed that one in five non-Christians are more open to talking about Jesus if they have been able to have an open conversation, which street preaching can achieve. Those who stand publicly preaching have a strong and genuinely-held conviction that as a manifestation of their Christian faith, they have an active responsibility to spread the Gospel. For instance, Romans 10:14 says: “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”. Christians who strongly believe in the Gospel will see that instruction as an important requirement of their faith; so how does the current law enable such manifestations?

Street preaching that causes an obstruction, makes too much noise or is trespassing is not without restriction and it can also be stopped if it is to cause a riot or incites hatred. Therefore, a police officer, within the exercise of his powers, is able reasonably to request a member of the public to stop what that person is doing if it can lead to a breach of the peace. Conversely, a police officer does not have the right to stop a citizen from his or her action if it is lawful conduct. However, the Public Order Act 1986 ss 4A-5 reforms under the Crime and Courts Act 2013 replaced the common law “insulting” test with a threshold of “threatening or abusive” words or behaviour with the intention to cause harassment, alarm or distress. This is narrower in scope but still leaves a wide area of open interpretation by the police.

The Crown Prosecution Guidance states that the general principle is that “The purpose of public order law is to ensure that individual rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are balanced against the rights of others to go about their daily lives unhindered”. However, as Peter Edge highlights in Oppositional religious speech: Understanding Hate Preaching:

“Recognition of the special status of religion or belief in the life of our fellow citizens, and in appropriate circumstances accommodation of their religious interests, is a fundamental state value in the UK.”

This general principle and Edge’s “fundamental state value” were considered in the case of Redmond-Bate v Director Of Public Prosecutions [1999] EWHC Admin 733, in which three Christian fundamentalists successfully appealed against a decision of conviction under s.89(2) Police Act 1996 and the evaluation of an imminent breach of the peace was considered. Sedley LJ, taking into account the context and consideration of religious freedom, said this at [20];

“Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. What Speakers’ Corner (where the law applies as fully as anywhere else) demonstrates is the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear. From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists, our world has seen too many examples of state control of unofficial ideas. A central purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights has been to set close limits to any such assumed power. We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against state orthodoxy”

If the manifestation of religion in the form of street preaching is deemed offensive to some then the notion that the law would not protect such individuals as posited by Sedley L.J would not be worth having at all. Therefore, considering the judgment Sedley LJ in Redmond-Bate v DPP and the reforms to the Public Order Act 1986 ss 4A – 5 threshold, the law has established a clear framework.

However, statistically, the Christian faith is on a downward trajectory, with a rapid increase in those affiliated with no religion, known as “the nones” – see the Census 2021. With shifts in social attitudes to religion, the privileges and liberties that Christians were once afforded are being questioned and they are under increasing pressure to silence (self-censor) themselves because it is deemed as an unpopular opinion or “the irritating…or eccentric” in the words of Sedley LJ. This concern within the Christian community is evident as seen in the Clearing the Ground Inquiry 2012 which was initiated by a number of high-profile cases concerning Christian marginalisation. The report, by a group of Christian MPS under the auspices of the Evangelical Alliance, said this:

“The problems that Christians face are far from universal, but they do represent a trend towards a reduction in the space given to belief in public life. As a result, this leads to an assumption that religious belief should be a private activity.”

Despite the progress we have made in society for equality and inclusion, it could be seen that there is a reversal in what was once the status quo, becoming the intolerable. The question going forward for Christians is, will there be pressure for Christian street preachers to depart from the public sphere due to the change in social norms and values where Christian morality does not have the dominant position it once had? Thus, it could be that public manifestations of Christian morality become increasingly contentious as the UK becomes a less religious society.

Be it the position or not within society, this is a time for the police to remember that whilst the message of the Gospel may be interpreted as offensive to some, that does not override the rights of individuals to manifest their religion, and the use of measures such as non-crime hate incidents, as in the case of Angus Cameron, should not be used in this context.

Kelly-Ann Cannon

Cite this article as: Kelly-Ann Cannon, “A heckler’s veto on Christian street preaching in the UK” in Law & Religion UK, 29 February 2024,

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