UK 'Buffer Zone' Law Destroys Right to Free Expression | Opinion

The Parliament of the United Kingdom has dealt a terrible blow to the fundamental right to free expression with the passage of a bill on Tuesday to roll out nationwide censorship zones around abortion facilities. Clause 11 of the new Public Order Bill will implement 150-meter zones around every abortion clinic in England and Wales where any form of "influence," including silent prayer and consensual conversations, is prohibited. Thought-crime is now a fully prosecutable offense in the modern-day U.K.

So-called buffer zones, already in force in five U.K. cities, trample basic human rights and block the free sharing of information that can support women. One need only look to recent arrests to understand the mass legal chaos that these zones unleash. Isabel Vaughan-Spruce has now been arrested twice, most recently on the eve of the parliamentary debate, for the mere act of silent prayer on the public sidewalk by a Birmingham, England, abortion facility. In February, Isabel was found "not guilty" in court, only to be re-arrested less than a month later for the very same act of silent prayer.

As evidenced by the interrogation that befell Isabel, it is not even speech, but thought, that determines whether you are in violation of a censorship zone. At the time of Isabel's second arrest, the officer commented: "you've said you're engaging in prayer, which is the offense." To which Isabel added the clarification: "silent prayer." The officer responded, "you were still engaging in prayer, which is the offense."

When the new law comes into effect, the proliferation of censorship zones across England and Wales will no doubt give rise to countless more cases like Isabel's. Peaceful citizens will risk coming under legal fire based on the contents of their internal, imperceptible thoughts.

UK Houses of Parliament
Balloons, one in the colours of the Union flag, are pictured near The Elizabeth Tower, commonly known by the name of the clock's bell, "Big Ben", at the Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament, in central London on March 6, 2023. - Britain's Conservative government is expected to present on Tuesday a new bill providing for the detention and swift deportation of asylum seekers who illegally enter the country via small boats, according to media reports. ISABEL INFANTES / AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, actual crimes across U.K. cities—including violent crimes, stabbings, and burglaries—go unsolved. Parts of the country are facing what has been described as a knife crime "pandemic," while police set their sights on arresting individuals standing peacefully on the sidewalk.

Eerily, pro-censorship members of Parliament had no qualms about specifically targeting silent prayer with the new law, triggering a vote on an amendment to exclude both it and consensual conversation from the bill. The amendment failed by a vote of 116-299 in the House of Commons.

The idea behind "buffer zones" is that they supposedly buffer women from harassment. But harassment is already a crime in the U.K. In reality, this is about leveraging the full power of government censorship to suppress a particular viewpoint, giving police the authority to question and arrest individuals solely on the basis of their thoughts.

As the U.K. moves forward, let's keep in mind that today the issue is abortion, but tomorrow it could be another one entirely. We should never cede to government the ability to punish anyone for the peaceful expression of their convictions, let alone their silent prayers and thoughts. Let the rest of the world take note and guard against an invasion by the thought police.

Paul Coleman is executive director of ADF International, which supports the defense of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce and other censorship zone cases. Follow him on Twitter @Paul_B_Coleman.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.