Councils say bans help tackle anti-social behaviour. But critics argue restrictions are a heavy-handed curb on freedom of expression

When Salford ditched its ban on swearing last week, Mark Thomass reaction was apt. Hoo fucking ray the comedian tweeted, shortly followed by a Whoo- fucking -hooo.

Introduced by the city council in 2016, the public spaces protection order (PSPO) outlawed foul and abusive language in Salford Quays, the former site of the Manchester Docks that has now been transformed by upscale developments. Offenders faced an on-the-spot fine, which could increase to 1,000.

The order immediately alarmed critics and free speech campaigners. What, after all, constituted foul language? Would a bloody hell get you into trouble? Could you be fined for a damn?

Mark Thomas (@markthomasinfo)

Hoo fucking ray. Love to @Commonerschoir and @TraceyTM and @libertyhq and congrats to all who campaigned on this.

Now we need to stamp out PSPOs.

Salford Quays swearing ban scrapped by council – BBC News https://t.co/LXt1OAyEQR

July 30, 2019

Thomas was due to perform at the Lowry theatre when the order came down in 2016, and has been known to drag audiences through the streets on post-gig demos. In the interests of remaining within the law, I sent Salford City Council a list of words Im considering using, and asking which are permissible and which are not, he wrote at the time. The list runs to 425 words, in alphabetical order, starting with arse, ending with winnit and including the term cat twinky. I have no idea what that last one means but thought we should check nonetheless.

Though Salfords citizens are now free once again to turn the air blue, many cities, towns and villages across England now fine cursing. A freedom of information request by the Manifesto Club, a campaigning group that challenges the hyper-regulation of public spaces, revealed that between August 2017 and January 2019, 15 councils banned swearing or foul language.

These include parts of the town of Morecambe, in Lancashire, including the Happy Mount Park, as well as in the village of Heysham. In Nottinghamshire, there are bans in place for areas in Gateford, Worksop and Retford; foul or abusive language is outlawed in parts of Ashford, in Kent. Cheshire East council has banned foul or abusive language in areas of Poynton and Congleton, and swearing is also banned in parts of Canterbury, Dartford and Hanley in Stoke-on-Trent.

Previous FOIs by the Manifesto Club, for the period November 2014 and June 2017, list other local authorities that have introduced orders banning swearing some of which have now expired.

The PSPOs were introduced by the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to tackle anti-social behaviour in public places. The civil rights organisation Liberty argues they are being used as a heavy-handed curb on freedom of expression.

Comedian
Comedian Mark Thomas protesting against PSPOs in Chester, in 2017. Photograph: Brian Hickey Photography/Alamy

PSPOs are dangerously broad powers that local councils are systematically misusing, said Lara ten Caten, a lawyer at Liberty. Whether to criminalise rough sleepers or to restrict free speech, these blunt powers are being used with little accountability, often against vulnerable people.

We have even heard from people with mental health issues who are particularly distressed at the prospect that they might inadvertently breach a swearing ban in their area, and feel that large parts of their local communities are closed to them because these bans are so vague that they make it impossible to know whether you might be punished just for speaking.

Some councils argue that crackdowns on individuals who swear and thereby cause a nuisance are supported by the public, particularly if those individuals are persistently making life a misery for residents. The orders often state foul language is prohibited when it causes harassment, alarm or distress.

Lancaster city council, for example, banned swearing in the city centre in December 2016. Councillor Alistair Sinclair, cabinet member with responsibility for communities and social justice, said: Swearing only becomes an offence if it causes annoyance, alarm or distress, and [the PSPO] is one of a number of tools the council is using to respond to a small persistent group of individuals who are causing anti-social behaviour in Lancaster city centre.

We have received numerous complaints from market traders, other shop keepers, [the] Lancaster Business Improvement District, hospital staff and members of the public about this group.

This group are regularly visited by the council and offered help in relation to substance dependency and other issues and the council also uses other tools including warning letters and the use of community protection legislation to support safety and wellbeing in the wider community.

Still, causing annoyance arguably sets the bar pretty low, and in theory gives enforcement officers broad powers to police language. Or as Thomas put it, the fate of gutter-gobbed miscreants will be in the hands of a council official.

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Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us

 

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