Liberty seeks clarification on order criminalising use of “foul language” in Salford

Posted on 02 Mar 2016

Liberty has written to Salford City Council advising that its Order criminalising the use of all “foul and abusive language” could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) was introduced in August 2015 and covers an area of Salford Quays. It creates a vaguely-worded criminal offence of “using foul and abusive language” – but fails to give any guidance on which words will be considered “foul and abusive” enough to constitute a criminal offence.

Liberty is concerned that the PSPO’s imprecise parameters mean it could have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression. The Council is bound by Article 10 of the Human Rights Act not to behave in a way that disproportionately breaches that right.

In the letter to City Director Jim Taylor, Liberty’s Rosie Brighouse has requested clarification on the approach council officers – and anyone else empowered to enforce the PSPO – will take to the following issues:

1. Does the language have to be both foul and abusive to breach the PSPO, or is its purpose to ban both language that is foul but not abusive, and language that is abusive but not foul?

2. What is the difference between language that is foul and language that is abusive?

3. What legal test will be applied to determine whether language is foul and/or abusive?

4. If someone uses foul and/or abusive language in the area covered by the PSPO, but there is no one present to hear it, will that amount to a criminal offence?

Rosie Brighouse, Legal Officer for Liberty, said: “This is a staggering example of the misuse of a Public Space Protection Order – so vaguely worded it’s impossible for anybody to know whether they’re in danger of breaking the law.

“The right to say what we want should not be restricted at the whim of council officials, able to issue fixed penalty notices on the basis of a poorly defined legal order. Without the freedom to offend, real freedom of expression cannot exist.”

Chilling effect

Liberty is particularly concerned that, in its current vaguely worded form, the Order will have a chilling effect on artistic performers and political activists in the Salford Quays area – which encompasses the renowned Lowry theatre.

Liberty’s letter highlights the fact that well-known comedian and activist Mark Thomas, with whom Liberty is working on this issue, will perform at the venue next week and intends to encourage his audience to join him in a number of artistic and political activities after the show in the area outside. Mr Thomas is concerned that he is unable to predict whether he or any audience member will be in breach of the PSPO – and therefore committing a criminal offence – by participating in his planned activities.

Liberty understands that Mr Thomas has prepared a list of words which he may wish to use and which he intends to send to Salford City Council to seek specific guidance on whether or not they will breach the PSPO.

About PSPOs

Created in 2014 by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, PSPOs enable local authorities to criminalise activities that have a persistent and unreasonable detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the area.

Liberty opposed their creation on the basis that they are too widely drawn with vague definitions of what can be criminalised and disproportionately punitive sanctions, and would result in the fast-tracking of vulnerable individuals into the criminal justice system. •

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