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?
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.