On June 29, 2017 Michael Overd and Michael Stockwell were acquitted by an appeals court of disturbing the public order in Bristol, England in July 2016.
Overd and Stockwell are Christian street preachers. Overd lives about 150 miles southwest of London in Creech St Michael, England. Stockwell is a former U.S. Marine who lives about 50 miles west of New York City in Selden, New York.
On July 6, 2016 Overd, Stockwell and two other men went to the Broadmead shopping centre in Bristol — which is about 120 miles west of London. They read aloud from the King James Bible, talked about sex before marriage, homosexuality, and commented about other religions. They also responded to questions and objections, and explained differences between Christianity and Islam using the Bible and the Koran as references.
July 6 was the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid. Overd was videotaped telling a crowd of about 100 people: “Mohammed is a liar and a thief,” and, “Allah is the greatest deceiver — that’s in the Koran.” When the crowd began chanting “go home,” the police moved in and arrested Overd, Stockwell, and one of the other preachers (the charges were later dropped against him).
Video showed the police roughly manhandling Overd, and he even fell down as he was being taken away.
The prosecution of Overd and Stockwell was based on the claim they were showing hostility to a religious group, which was disturbing the public order.
Overd and Stockwell’s defense was they were exercising their right to freedom of expression by reading from the Bible and making religious based comments. Their solicitor Michael Phillips argued to the court:
“This prosecution is nothing more than a modern-day heresy trial – dressed up under the Public Order Act. Every negative remark about other religions and ways of life are taken straight from those texts. The preachers do not use inflammatory language, but simply the language of the Bible. If it is the case that the crown seeks to ban biblical scripture, that would be a bold move. [F]ree speech is foundational to the functioning of society – just as much as freedom of the press and democracy – and it must be protected at all costs. We need to stand against the movement which says it’s only ok to say things that don’t offend others. That might be nice for people in the short term, but it is not beneficial in the long term.”
After a four day bench (judge only) trial, Overd and Stockwell were convicted on February 28, 2017 of violating England and Wales’ Crime and Disorder Act 1998. They were each sentenced to pay a £300 fine, a £30 victim surcharge, and shared prosecution costs of £3,372, that totaled £2,016 each.
They appealed their convictions and fines.
On June 29, 2017 the Bristol Crown Court quashed the convictions of both men on the basis the prosecution failed to introduce evidence that either man had committed a public order offense. The appeals court ruled that Stockwell “did no more than express his no doubt sincerely held religious beliefs,” and that Overd’s “working the crowd” to get a reaction to his religious statements wasn’t a crime. His Honour Judge Picton stated the Court was “conscious of the right of freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”
After their convictions were overturned, Stockwell told reporters outside the courthouse, “People should be free to express their beliefs in public, without risk of harm, violence or other repercussions. That’s why today’s result is such a great victory.”
Overd was more circumspect in his comments, saying he was “very sad” that “this is what this country has come to. This is not an isolated case. How many times must we go to court before there is respect for the law? My heart bleeds for this country, but I am a patriot and I will be back on the streets to preach. My life is not my own. I am a Christian soldier and I rejoice in this prosecution.”
Stockwell and Overd were provided legal support by the Christian Legal Center based in London, whose chief executive Andrea Williams said the ruling was a “victory for freedom of speech.”
Overd had previously been convicted of disturbing the public order for publicly explaining Bible passages concerning homosexuality in Taunton, England in 2014. Overd’s arrest and prosecution was based on a listener — who self-identified as a homosexual — objecting to what Overd was saying. Overd’s March 2015 conviction was overturned on December 11, 2015 by the Taunton Crown Court, on the basis of prosecution failed to introduce sufficient evidence he violated the public order law. Overd was also assisted in that case by the Christian Legal Center. After his exoneration Overd issued a statement:
“I give thanks to God for today’s vindication. I have known God’s peace and presence throughout this difficult time.
Today the Court was faced with the farcical situation of a witness telling the judge that he couldn’t even remember what I had said, but simply asserting that it was ‘homophobic’ – as though the mere assertion that something is ‘homophobic’ is enough to curtail free speech.
In this country, we are now in the ludicrous situation where the slightest accusation of a ‘phobia’, be it ‘homophobia’ or ‘Islamaphobia’, is enough to paralyse rational action by the police and authorities. The highly politicised dogma of ‘phobias’ now too often results in trumped up charges and legal action. There is a chilling effect.
Reasonable, law-abiding people now feel that they can’t say certain things and that is dangerous. Totalitarian regimes develop when ordinary people feel that there are certain things that can’t be said.
Rather than prizing freedom of expression and protecting it, the police and the prosecutors risk undermining it, because they’ve become paranoid about anyone who might possibly feel offended.”
The CLC’s chief executive Andrea Williams said after Overd’s 2015 conviction was overturned:
“This is the right decision, but it should never have come to this.
Public debate is becoming more superficial and fragile. People feel that certain things can’t be said. That is dangerous. It prevents us from challenging ideas, beliefs and behaviour that need to be challenged. It may make some people feel more comfortable, but it doesn’t make the country safer.
Mike’s case highlights problems that will only get worse if the government ploughs on with its flawed ‘Counter-Extremism Strategy’. Islamic terrorism needs to be tackled, but giving the government far-reaching powers to clamp down on all sorts of beliefs that it doesn’t like is dangerous.
The definitions and parameters are so vague that, on a whim, the government could turn on almost any viewpoint that it doesn’t like.
Mike Overd is a canary in the coal mine, warning us of the dangers of the government’s current approach to tacking ‘extremism’.”
Solicitor Michael Phillips, who works with the CLC, represented Overd pro bono in both his cases. The website of the Christian Legal Center in London is www.christianconcern.com/christian-legal-centre.