Swearing ban ‘infringes’ freedom of speech, Liberty tells Salford Council

© AFP
Foul language has been banned from an upmarket neighborhood in the northern English town of Salford. Human rights campaigners say the ban is an assault on freedom of speech.

Salford City Council introduced a controversial public spaces protection order (PSPO) in parts of its posh Quays docklands development last August in a bid to quell anti-social behavior.

Residents have complained the waterfront, which is used as a route for football fans on their way to Old Trafford, can be a hotbed of anti-social activity.

Civil rights group Liberty warned on Friday that enforcement of the order could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression in the area.

The charity claims the PSPO fails to clearly define what is meant by “foul and abusive language.”

Liberty legal officer Rosie Brighouse said the law was so vague it would be impossible to know if anyone is in danger of breaking it.

This is a staggering example of the misuse of a public spaces protection order, so vaguely worded it’s impossible for anybody to know whether they’re in danger of breaking the law,” she said.

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.

In a letter to Salford City Director Jim Taylor, Brighouse requested clarification on four points.

She asks: “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?

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

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

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?

Comedian and activist Mark Thomas, who is scheduled to perform at a venue in the docklands, is said to have sent a list of words, which he may use during his set to the city council in advance of the show.

Thomas has reportedly asked for specific guidance on whether or not they will breach the PSPO when he performs next Thursday. In an interview with the BBC on Wednesday he called the city council “petty bullies” who only care about the area “that the tourists go to.

A Council spokesman said the city would not apologize for legislation brought in to help improve the lives of local residents.

We will discuss Liberty’s concerns privately with them and make sure that nothing interferes with Mr Thomas’s artistic performance,” he said.

Liberty are fully aware that breach of a PSPO is only an offence if a person does a prohibited act without a reasonable excuse. That allows all the circumstances to be taken into account.

I appreciate Liberty want publicity for their campaign against these orders, but Salford City Council is not going to apologize for using national legislation to help Salford residents when their lives are being made a misery by anti-social behavior.