The Crime of Leafleting

Britain’s streets are full of inconveniences, from panhandling to Hare Krishna. We tolerate those vying for our money and time as an inescapable feature of modern life. Never does it cross our mind to ask the state to intervene on our behalf, except in the event that a person breaches etiquette by voicing opinion contrary to what is deemed appropriate in civil society.

Enter Damon Kelly, a “fake monk” affiliated with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Northampton, arrested last December by Cambridgeshire Police on suspicion of a public order offence for the distribution of leaflets. Via the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS):

A religious activist from Northamptonshire has been given a Criminal Behaviour Order preventing him from distributing leaflets about religious, sexual or reproductive topics to any residential, commercial or academic address and door-knocking to express his views for the next five years.

Damon Jonah Kelly, had been distributing leaflets dressed in a monk’s robe in a variety of different locations including the East Midlands, Brighton, Cambridgeshire and the West Midlands since 2012. The leaflets expressed his views denouncing a number of groups and communities, including faiths different to his own, divorcees and people using assisted childbirth, but principally targeting the gay community.

Many people who read his leaflets were upset and offended by them, and reported his activities to the police. The leaflets were described by witnesses as “vile,” “offensive” and “upsetting.”

That Kelly is somebody whose presence on Britain’s streets is an inconvenience to residents speaks for itself. Whether it was fair to prosecute him for leafleting is another matter.

Slowly but surely, we have been led to believe that restrictions on freedom of speech are justifiable where the government deems it necessary to preserve public order. Public order and malicious communications laws, frequently used to silence unpopular speech, are sold under the pretense of protecting religious and racial minorities from discrimination.

These laws, equal opportunity prosecutors managing to snare people as ideologically diverse as James McConnell and Bahar Mustafa, conflate offensiveness, hatred and violence so that otherwise harmless words and opinions are taken as incitement to violence. Clearing away the rhetoric, the theory falls flat: a leaflet comparing homosexuals to paedophiles is no more an incitement to violence than a leaflet comparing the slaughter of animals to the holocaust is an incitement to vegetarianism.

Tellingly, police were initially reluctant to take action against Kelly, stating that neither the distribution of leaflets nor the messages they contain constitute a crime. Retrospectively taking up the argument that leafleting is in fact a crime worthy of prosecution should the leaflets contain offensive messages is Lisa Morris, Senior District Crown Prosecutor at CPS East Midlands:

“Damon Kelly has caused offence when distributing his leaflets. The right of free speech is extremely important in our society, but when this crosses the line into harassment, it is important that the public is protected. This Criminal Behaviour Order is necessary to balance Damon Kelly’s right to free speech with the need to protect the public from such further conduct. It is important that communities are aware that he has been banned by the courts from these activities. Anyone who thinks they have seen Damon Kelly breaching this Criminal Behaviour Order should contact their local police force and report it.”

Damon Kelly could soon be leafleting in a town near you. You’ve been warned. 

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