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Free Speech

Questions to the Mayor of London – answered on 24th January 2020.

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Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

To what extent do you support freedom of expression at Speaker’s Corner and at other public places in London?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

As a former human rights lawyer, I recognise that freedom of speech is absolutely essential to the proper functioning of any democratic society and is a basic right and one that must be cherished and jealously guarded for all of our citizens, regardless of faith, ethnicity, gender, background, sexuality or political orientation. Of course, there are sensible limits to freedom of speech, for good reason. People are not allowed to incite violence or racial or religious hatred, and I am sure everyone will agree with me that the laws we have in place around this are crucial for protecting the safety and security of Londoners, particularly minority communities.

For many decades Speaker’s Corner has famously served as a space where members of the public can come and exercise their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Indeed, the suffragettes regularly gathered at that very spot to articulate the case for gender equality and demand their right to vote. I am well aware of the historical importance of Speaker’s Corner and I am fully committed to keeping its traditions alive as a place where people can express themselves and their views, no matter who they are or what they stand for, as long as they do so peacefully and within the law.

By that same token, there are many other public spaces across London that exist as focal points for Londoners who wish to meet and engage in debate, discussion and dialogue. It is vital that this remains the case and that London continues to be open to people who want to speak their minds and express their views.

We know that when it comes to this issue the authorities can sometimes have a difficult job striking the right balance, whether it is policing protests and marches or ensuring safe elections and helping London stage global events. Police officers operate in incredibly complex and sensitive circumstances. I know that the Metropolitan Police Service [MPS] is alert to the nuances around policing these delicate areas and that it makes every effort to uphold the freedom of speech, whilst also ensuring that it is enforcing the law and complying with the specific regulations that may be in force in any given public space.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Good morning, Mr Mayor, and thank you for your answer. We have spoken about freedom of speech before, and particularly relating to the case of Pastor Oluwole Ilesanmi, who was arrested in Enfield. You have written to me about that. Obviously he was arrested and de-arrested and the police have made compensation. That was a high-profile case.

There has been another high-profile case in November [2019] at Speaker’s Corner, and you may be aware of the case of Roland Parsons, another Christian street preacher, who has been attending Speaker’s Corner for about 20 years, peacefully saying what he has to say and putting up a sign to back up what he wants to say. On 10 November [2019], the police asked him to take down a sign which said, “The blood of Christ”. He has had that sign up for many, many years, but suddenly, after 20 years, the police targeted him, asked for his name and address and asked him to remove that sign. I do not know why that was. I do not know why the people in Speaker’s Corner who were policing that did that, but what are your thoughts on that? Should that have happened, and was that reasonable and proportionate?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Chair, I am not aware of the full details of that case. What I can do is look into it and write to the Assembly Member in relation to what I can ascertain from MOPAC and the MPS. I have been quite clear in my answer. I think Article 10 in the Human Rights Act [1998] is quite clear in relation to freedom of expression and freedom of speech. There are obviously nuances involved in relation to the job of the police to make sure nobody is breaking the law. I do not know about the individual circumstances of the case. I will look into the case and write to the Assembly Member.

I am quite clear that one of the joys of living in a democracy is freedom of speech, having that debate, that discussion, sometimes heated, hopefully always courteous, and I think that is quite important in a democracy. We should cherish that.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Thank you for your answer. I appreciate you do not know the details of that specific case, as you say, but it just seems to me that one person who has been there for 20 years suddenly is asked to take down a sign, when other people who had signs were not asked to take them down. I appreciate you are going to write to me about that.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

All I would say, Chair, is I am grateful for the Assembly Member who raised a previous case, rightly so, and he will be aware the case was raised, the police looked into it, I think the officers have apologised, and actually I think the police accepted that, for that particular person, it was wrong for the police to arrest them and do what they did, which demonstrates, hopefully, that the system of checks and balances works. I am not saying that the police always get it right. It is really difficult. They often make split-second decisions. Complaints are made. By and large, I genuinely believe that we have the best police service in the world. It understands the challenges. Let me look into it, Chair, and I will write to the Assembly Member.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Great. Thank you, Mr Mayor. I want to raise another case which has also been quite high-profile and has received a lot of media attention. That is the case of Christian Hacking, who was another Christian. He prayed, engaged in prayer, outside the abortion clinic in Ealing where there is a so-called buffer zone, a public space protection order, which you supported 100% the setting-up of this buffer zone. When it was written, it went well beyond banning people speaking, to actually banning and criminalising prayer. It is astounding that there is an area of London where prayer is now a criminal activity and Christian Hacking was a person who was arrested by the police. Apparently, the procedure was not implemented properly, and then the case was dropped by the police. What are your thoughts on that? Should prayer be criminalised?

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

I think, Chair, we have to be very careful in attributing established facts to a situation where the facts may not be established. What I am clear about is often vulnerable women who in my view should have the right to choose what happens to their bodies are being harassed by individuals in groups across our city. I do not want an Americanisation in relation to what has happened to the right of women to choose what happens to their bodies. If it is the case that there is a buffer zone with quite clear rules that are being breached by anybody, I think it is right that the police should enforce a breach of the buffer zone rules. I do not know about the facts of the case, and as somebody who himself prays, I would find it objectionable if somebody else is not allowed to pray or is criminalised. That is not saying anything about the facts of that case, which I just do not know about, but I think we have to be quite clear. There is a very good reason and a very sensible reason why the council supported those women and others in relation to this buffer zone. You are right, I fully support this buffer zone outside this clinic.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

Mr Mayor, I do have a problem with you using the word “harassment”, because there are groups that are pro-life who have been protesting there for nearly 25 years, before the buffer zone was put into place. There has never been a single case of harassment, abuse or intimidation being brought, even though people have accused pro-life groups such as the Good Counsel and others of doing so. There was never any evidence that they engaged in harassment. Suddenly, this public space protection order has brought this in, and now I feel that it is a very, very draconian erosion of freedom of speech that has taken place in Ealing and other places.

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Chair, one of the joys of our democracy is that we are entitled to disagree. I would say this: one of the checks and balances we have is, before the order was issued, the courts looked at those sorts of arguments. Similarly, if the Assembly Member believes or the individual believes that his rights have been breached, he can challenge that through the courts, which again is one of the great things about living in a democracy. Without knowing the facts of the case, if that individual or the Assembly Member thinks they have been wronged, then it is open to them, obviously, to challenge this through the courts.

Photo of David Kurten David Kurten Brexit Alliance

I would appreciate if you could look into that case. The arrest was actually wrongful. He was not given a caution before he was arrested, as far as I can see by looking into the facts of the case. If you would look into that and ensure that police follow proper procedures in that case --

Photo of Sadiq Khan Sadiq Khan Mayor of London

Chair, why don’t I agree to look into both of those cases raised by the Assembly Member? If there are any more facts, feel free to email my office and I will be happy to look into those.