Whither Free Speech? 100 Hours Community Service For Shouting at David Cameron?

Yesterday Stuart Rodger, a 23-year-old former Lib-Dem political activist, was sentenced at Glasgow Sheriff Court to carry out 100 hours of community service under the horribly named “Community Payback Order”. Mr Rodger pled guilty to a charge of behaving in a threatening or abusive manner contrary to Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010.

So what? These charges arise regularly in the Scottish courts. Every day there are people being convicted of behaving in such a manner, or pleading guilty to having done so. Why mention Mr Rodger?

His offence was rather unusual. When the Prime Minister came to Glasgow on 31st July this year, Mr Rodger hid in a toilet in the Grand Central Hotel and, at a suitable moment, burst into the room where Mr Cameron was speaking to Party colleagues.

Mr Rodger shouted “No ifs, not buts, no public sector cuts.”

Today he found himself facing a charge of behaving in a threatening or abusive manner by violating a security cordon, shouting and failing to desist, attempting to approach Mr Cameron and causing fear and alarm.

There are countries in the world where bursting into a room with the Head of Government in it could lead to you being shot, but thankfully not so in Scotland.

However, Mr Rodger was trying to make a political point and, as a former supporter of the Lib Dems, felt betrayed enough by the Coalition to make a noisy and dramatic protest.

The charge has to be read as a whole, because otherwise one might think that it was being stated to be an offence to approach Mr Cameron. Instead it is the totality of actions alleged which together constitute the offence.

Mr Rodger pled guilty, and therefore there was no trial or attempt to argue that there was a defence, either in that the conduct was not such as would amount to “threatening or abusive behaviour” or that, under the European Convention on Human Rights, there are rights to free expression and to state political views without fear of arrest.

I will say that, in the absence of the Crown statements and the full investigation undoubtedly carried out by the lawyer for Mr Rodger, any opinion I express or comment I make about his pleading guilty can only be based on the information available publicly. It should not be taken as criticism of the lawyer acting for Mr Rodger. Nor should it be taken as criticism of Mr Rodger who will undoubtedly have considered all relevant issues and his legal advice before deciding what plea to enter.

Section 38 reads as follows:-

38 Threatening or abusive behaviour

(1) A person (“A”) commits an offence if—

(a) A behaves in a threatening or abusive manner,

(b) the behaviour would be likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm, and

(c) A intends by the behaviour to cause fear or alarm or is reckless as to whether the behaviour would cause fear or alarm.

(2) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to show that the behaviour was, in the particular circumstances, reasonable.

(3) Subsection (1) applies to—

(a) behaviour of any kind including, in particular, things said or otherwise communicated as well as things done, and

(b) behaviour consisting of—

(i) a single act, or

(ii) a course of conduct.

(4) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—

(a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years, or to a fine, or to both, or

(b) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both.

This offence was included in the 2010 Act in an effort to lay down a statutory equivalent to the former “breach of the peace” charge, whose flexibility and adaptability had led to it coming into conflict with the requirement for certainty in the law.

But let’s look for a minute at this charge, as faced by Mr Rodger.

The three essential elements of the charge are:-

  • Behaving in a threatening or abusive manner;
  • In a way likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm; and
  • The accused intends to cause fear and alarm or is reckless as to doing so.

Whilst, in the present climate, popping unexpectedly into the room where the PM is speaking might cause “fear or alarm” that is clearly at the bottom end of the spectrum. Jumping out at someone and shouting “boo” could equally satisfy parts 2 and 3 of the charge.

But what about part 1?

It is necessary to behave in a “threatening or abusive manner”. According to the BBC report the precise details of the charge, as referred to above were that he breached Section 38 by:-

  • violating a security cordon,
  • shouting and failing to desist,
  • attempting to approach Mr Cameron
  • and causing fear and alarm.

Based on the report, I struggle to see where the “threatening or abusive” behaviour comes in, unless, per se, the act of approaching the Prime Minister is deemed to be threatening.

Subsection 2 provides a defence where the accused can show that the conduct was reasonable. Mr Rodger could have argued this, on the basis that there is a right to protest.

One wonders if the Scottish Legal Aid Board would have granted Legal Aid to Mr Rodger for his defence if he had elected to contest the charges on the basis that he was neither threatening or abusive and that, in any event, his conduct was reasonable. In the absence of Legal Aid for a defence of that nature, then it may be that, as a practical matter, Mr Rodger would have had little choice other than to plead guilty. (I have no knowledge of any application by Mr Rodger for Legal Aid, nor of the outcome of any such application. I merely write from having dealt with the Legal Aid Board over many years).

I am sure that Mr Cameron had no input to the decision to prosecute Mr Rodger. Maybe he should have been called as a defence witness!

As Mr Cameron himself said, in a speech to the Munich Security Conference on 5th February 2011:-

We must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home.  Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism.  A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone.  It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.  Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.  It says to its citizens, this is what defines us as a society: to belong here is to believe in these things.  Now, each of us in our own countries, I believe, must be unambiguous and hard-nosed about this defence of our liberty.

How far does the approbation of “freedom of speech” extend?

Is the issue for Mr Rodger that he has previous for protest against this government?

In February, as detailed below, he was fined for committing a breach of the peace by shouting and throwing an egg at Nick Clegg.

Three particular comments from the report jump out at me.

Firstly Mr Rodger’s laconic response – “It was purely accidental. It was designed to hit Nick Clegg.”

Secondly the words of his defence lawyer, which, as is often the case turned out not to be an accurate prediction – Miss Ryan said Rodger was “not likely to behave like this again”.

Thirdly, the words of Sheriff Adair – “This country prides itself in free speech and protesting within limits, but your actions were criminal.”

Maybe it was because of the Sheriff’s words that Mr Rodger decided that he would leave the eggs and the paint behind on this occasion, and that he would simply shout the protest slogan at the Prime Minister?

By comparison with other highly publicised protests, and the consequences for the protestors, Mr Rodger’s sentence, whilst a serious one, Community Payback Orders being described as alternatives to imprisonment, was far short of what it could have been. On summary complaint, as this case was, a sentence of 12 months in gaol could have been passed.

We have recently seen Trenton Oldfield imprisoned for six months for disrupting the Boat Race, as part of his protest against government spending cuts.

In Russia the members of the punk band, Pussy Riot, were on the receiving end of two years’ sentences in penal colonies after conviction for hooliganism motivated by religious hared for attempting to sing protest songs about President Putin in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

As Tom Esslemont of BBC News commented:-

Once the sentences were handed down, the United States and the European Union were quick to condemn them as “disproportionate”. Certainly many feel that the initial protest by Pussy Riot was blasphemous, foolish and wrong. But Russia’s most outspoken critics say the trial took things to another extreme; it showed how the country was returning to the dark ages, said one.

Mr Rodger’s Payback Order is of course far less serious than a prison sentence. However, his protest to the Prime Minister was a peaceful one.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights states:-

Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

The criminalisation of protest has been an issue as long as there have been authorities against which to protest. But at a time in the UK where the issues seem very stark, and where all of the mainstream political parties are publicly in agreement that there must be further cuts, only the scale being in dispute, those who do not have a direct political voice, whether from the left wing, right wing or, as with Mr Rodger, disaffected Lib Dems, can only raise these issues by peaceful protest.

Should Mr Rodger repeat his behaviour with another member of the Cabinet, he would face a prison sentence on the basis that the alternative to custody had not worked.

The bottom line? In a “genuinely liberal country” as described by the Prime Minister is prosecution of protesters consistent with being unambiguous and hard nosed in protection of our liberties?

Posted by Paul McConville

——————————————–

Below are extracts from the two news items referred to above regarding Mr Rodger, and links to the full reports.

BBC News website 2 November 2012

A man who shouted “no public sector cuts” at David Cameron during a speech in Glasgow has been ordered to carry out 100 hours of community service.

Stuart Rodger, 23, hid in a toilet at the Grand Central Hotel before bursting into a room where the prime minister was addressing Conservatives.

During an appearance at Glasgow Sheriff Court, the former Lib-Dem political activist admitted behaving in a threatening or abusive manner by violating a security cordon, shouting and failing to desist, attempting to approach Mr Cameron and causing fear and alarm.

He was handed a community payback order with the condition he has to carry out 100 hours of community service. This was reduced from 150 because of his guilty plea.

Procurator fiscal depute John Slowey told the court Rodger hid in a toilet prior to making his entrance on 31 July. It was heard he shouted “No ifs, not buts, no public sector cuts.”

Mr Rodger’s lawyer said the “security cordon” he got past was someone asking if he had a pass, and Mr Rodger had only gone a few metres into the room.

BBC News website 20 February 2012

A former Liberal Democrat activist has admitted splattering Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg with blue paint.

Stuart Rodger threw an egg containing the liquid as Mr Clegg made a visit to Glasgow to meet party representatives last August. He was fined £200 at Glasgow Sheriff Court after admitting a breach of the peace.

The court earlier heard how Rodger had been “shouting aggressively” as he sprinted towards Mr Clegg’s car as it arrived at the hall.

Prosecutor Linda McCaffer said: “Police tried to stop the accused and, as they did so, he produced an egg which was concealed in his right hand. This contained blue paint. The accused threw this towards Nick Clegg, who by this time was making his way into the building.”

Rodger – a third-year student at Glasgow University – was later arrested and told police: “It was purely accidental. It was designed to hit Nick Clegg.”

His lawyer, Clare Ryan, told the court Rodger was a Lib Dem activist who had been “particularly upset” at the party teaming up with the Tories after the General Election in 2010.

She added: “He was really against the coalition, but that does not give him the right to offend. He was protesting on that day, but he accepts that he crossed the line.”

Miss Ryan said Rodger was “not likely to behave like this again”.

Sheriff Brian Adair told the student: “This country prides itself in free speech and protesting within limits, but your actions were criminal.”

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23 Comments

Filed under Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland ) Act 2010, Criminal Law, General Scots Law Rambling, Human Rights

23 responses to “Whither Free Speech? 100 Hours Community Service For Shouting at David Cameron?

  1. John Burns

    If he had been of Asian ethnicity, or a member of Stonewall, he would have got off with a caution, or, would have been admonished – no jibe intended, it’s just the way our society is at the moment

    • John Burns

      Just to qualify my previous remarks.

      The silent majority (95%) in this country must ‘walk on eggshells’; eggshells that have been left there by the vocal and media-bolstered minority(5%) have left, after breaking the eggs.

  2. JohnBhoy

    No gers, no bears, no football sector cares.

  3. josephmcgrath112001809

    A fine point, well put. The real question is If this man posed a threat to the Prime Minister why did the security team not recognise the threat earlier? If they did not detect the man, who was a threat, then this is a serious failure. An armed man could have caused much more alarm and worse.

    In reality this man has shown up weaknesses in the security services and the police protection teams. Has all that been lost and swept under the carpet by concentrating on a man shouting? Why have the authorities not instigated an inquiry into the security failures.?
    I wonder how confident David Cameron and other prominent politicians feel about their protection units?

    • I would have to agree with this apparent failing in basic security measures – without knowing the exact details of the situation; one would have thought that checking something as basic as a toilet may have been a general checkpoint in times of high terrorist activity. Not to mention the fact that he must not have been a fleeting visitor to the toilet – to await Mr Cameron he must have loitered for a reasonable amount of time in said toilet to raise suspicion.

      On another point, and to pick up on Pauls statements – i am not so sure.

      “Behaving in a threatening or abusive manner;
      In a way likely to cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm; and
      The accused intends to cause fear and alarm or is reckless as to doing so.”

      “violating a security cordon,
      shouting and failing to desist,
      attempting to approach Mr Cameron
      and causing fear and alarm.”

      I am not one to create a case for the prosecution – far from. However, in this situation i could see reasonable reason for the charge.

      ‘causing fear and alarm’ – surely ‘violating a security cordon’ would suggest that the accused did indeed intent to cause some sort of alarm, or that it would be reasonably foreseeable that by crossing the security cordon intended to protect the Prime Minister(a likely terrorist target) that such action would tend to cause fear and alarm no matter the obviously poor security conditions.

      “shouting and failing to desist” – no mention of the word ‘aggression’ in regard to the manner of the shouting however ‘shouting’ in a situation where this would not be the common (unlike a football ground) would again tend to put the general public, not to mention Mr Cameron- in a state of fear or alarm especially at an event including Mr Cameron …. a possible target for crime. ‘Failing to desist’ would also add to this; failing to stop an activity that is irregular with the norm at such an event….well…..

      ‘attempting to approach Mr Cameron’ – well, nothing wrong with that now, but over a ‘security cordon’ hmmmmmmmmm

      So, where am i going with this. Well – in a nutshell, i can see a strong case here for the ‘threatening’ but not the ‘abusive’. I am not a fan of the legislation, or of Parliaments seeming wish to legislate for all crimes that are far better suited to the common law.

      That was just my take on the original story when i read it – as for the real meat and bones of your piece i would have to agree with your sentiment.

      I would also like to suggest that those pleasing ‘guilty’ in future may become a far more regular outcome should the legal aid board fall to more Government cuts – however that would raise more than a can of worms regarding HR law – but why worry, the U.K. doesn’t seem to think it needs to bow to such anymore anyway. 😉

  4. jim62

    Strugghling to see the problem here. He plead guilty
    Presumably he accepted legal advice?
    Mr Rodger appears to be an attention seeking idiot. Perhaps someone should tell him that his party are a part of the Government ??

  5. Brian J

    I don’t think that Mr Rodger was per se attempting to assert his right to free speech so much as engaging in a publicity stunt to further his own political agenda. Not in and of itself necessarily criminal but when the whole incident is viewed in context it quite clearly, IMHO, passes the threshold of criminal conduct. In particular it was a private meeting not a public event or in a public place. Had Mr Rodger shouted his comments at Mr Cameron as he left his official car and walked into the venue, being in a public place, the context of his actions and the perception of a perceived threat would have been significantly different and would not have, in my view, breached the threshold of criminal action. It was however only by doing it the way that he did and virtually gauranteeing that he would be arrested that he managed to get the publicity he sought.

  6. ecojon

    @ Brian J

    I tend to be very sympathetic to the position you hold but must stress that we are woefully short on factual information because the matter didn’t go to trial.

    That in a sense is curious because one would have thought the accused would have argued a right to free speech and freedom to demonstrate. However perhaps that would have exposed the incident as a publicity seeking political stunt rather than a defence of individual liberty.

    Perhaps if one was interested enough to check on his Facebook page we would get chapter and verse of the thought processes of agrieved activist.

    The slip-up in checking the integrity of security within the cordon is a salutory and no doubt someone will get a kick up the asp to ensure that a terrorist is unable to repeat the trick as easily. I would have assumed that toilets in the vicinity would be a priority to check and surely the doors to the room in question should have either been locked or guarded on the outside. All very strange – perhaps the revenge of the plebs 🙂

    The really worrying factor is that this could have been so much worse, indeed fatal, if the PM’s security team had shot Mr Rodger. Not as far-fetched a scenario as some might think especially if he was holding a phone as he burst in and maybe went to photograph the conforntation.

    Personally I think our police and security forces have enough real threats to deal with without being put in a ‘kill’ situation by an unhappy political activist – hopefully his political career is at end for at least enough time for him to garner some common sense.

  7. Micky Burt

    Should have nutted Cameron IMO

  8. Ernesider

    How does one burst into a room through a presumably unlocked door?

  9. Wonder if this is what this is what LeggoLand is spouting on about in his latest blog LOL.( you gotta read it to believe it) I can just see it now ‘Rangers get Blanket Community Payback Order against its enemies – PMSL

    • Glazert Tim

      Why oh why did you mention reading Leggoland? Like a lamb to the slaughter I did so (even though I vowed never to pollute my eyeballs again reading his gash musings) through nothing more than curiosity at what the old pish stained hack had to say.

      Trouble is, his blog turns the curious into typical kids finding a scud mag in a hedge in the countryside. They have a quick peek and end up flicking through random bits that catch the eye but end up feeling disappointed and or confused but always a bit grubby.

      Although like a scud mag in a hedge, Leggo has similarly found himself being discovered in a hedge by passers by, having a strong tang of stale piss about him with difficulties in legibility

      He has clearly been drinking the Harpic toilet cleaner again! Like the proverbial barbers cat. He’s full of wind and pish.

  10. If this had happened in China there would have been total condemnation by the British authorities at such a crackdown of civil liberties. The state would have been accused of breaching basic human rights and a letter of protest would have been sent to the Chinese Embassy. Its only correct if it happens in Britain. Spot the double standards of the establishment here and its parallels with the now dead Rangers! Yes, the laws are for everyone else not for those and such as those on the side of the British establishment. Shamefaced British hypocrisy and the now dead Rangers football Club are just two examples. There are thousands of others.

  11. Newtz

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I have never read or heard of Leggoland, but you have opened my eyes. In sharp contrast to the general rubbish one reads on this site, Leggoland gets straight to the point. Green and the other guy are Gods and Rangers problems are brought about by a failure on all our parts to worship them. He doesn’t name Paul and others on this site, but I am now convinced that if all who post here were to shut up and worship at the Ibrox alter, all would be well. I am going to sell my children and invest because Leggo wants me to. It beggars belief that you could have misled me for so long, you should be ashamed as I said in my posts on 24th 28th May and 15th Sept.

    Is this man a lunatic. If he is, I want more of him. Can’t wait to read his next balanced piece.

    • JohnBhoy

      Violet, on one level LeggoLand is good for a laugh. On another level, however, he is dangerously unhinged. He knows that his vitriolic and combative tone strikes a chord with Charlie and a section of the Rangers support. Ally, to a lessor extent, mimics that language (“At last we have someone who can stand up for us”). It’s noticeable that other clubs have away fans/teams/managers but Rangers have “enemies”. The military talk of “formidable fronts”, “attacks” and “enemies” is positively loopy. Unfortunately, this ugly propaganda and call to arms will only turn the establishment and the wider community further against Rangers.

  12. carl31

    Paul,
    I think a few points are pertinent, two of which you recognise.
    The view taken is not based on knowledge of the case but on reports by the BBC. The guy has pled guilty. Taking these two points together I would think it likely that there is a bit more to the case than has been reported.

    Third point is that the use of the words ‘free spech’ dont apply here since it does not seem to have been a public meeting. It seems that he hid in a loo and then entered a room uninvited – entered what is essentially private property/room/event. He doesn’t, as I understand things, have freedom of speech since the venue was not open to the public. In a public space, he would have every right to make the protest he did.

    I would like to add that, having typed the above, I do think the Government of the day and the other major parties do not have exposure to such opinion strongly put by the public in any measure near that which they should, and that I’m all for peaceful protest.

  13. LEGO IS A CRACKPOT……

    No doubt in his little world he will want to raise a case of defamation against me for such a statement.

  14. RM hacked yet again ….. back up now Claiming it was Chinese attack (i,m serious) …they should get a Community Payback Order issued on them

  15. fisiani

    So at a PRIVATE political meeting a lone uninvited unknown stranger leaps out speaking loudly and aggressively and advances on the PM. Try doing that in the USA and the Secret Service would probabably shoot you before you finished your sentence. His actions could have been the prelude to violent action. No one knew his next intended step. Of course his actions caused alarm. The offence was caused not by what he said but because of what he did and where he did it. His sentence thus appears to be quite light given the circumstances described. His actions were more threatening than the swimmer who received six months jail.

  16. JimBhoy

    leggo fukin mad man…. represents all we hate in this blog…. chico corrupt but i don’t rangers.. \\\\\\\\\\\\i love the \celts…!!!!

  17. JimBhoy

    i dont hate the rangers?,?

  18. Liz Davis

    I was given 100 hours of community service today by an arrogant and callous Magistrate/Judge in the Paisley Sheriff Court for a default judgement on a minor speeding charge in Dorset as I was unable to attend the court in February for which I was fined £475 which I have been unable to pay. I was told by the Citizens Advice Bureaux that I only needed to pay it in November which they had managed to arrange, but as I still could not afford it, I thought I would ask at the court (which they offered on their demand) for a repayment option.
    Instead I got 100 hours community service ??????
    Having just moved to Glasgow in January of this year, and as a single mother being unable to afford, or even have anyone to leave my son with while I traversed the length and breadth of the UK to attend the court in Weymouth where I had wished to dispute my fine (unknown stretch of road, 30mph sign only 15ft in front of camera, not enough notice to slow down in time etc).
    The fact that I volunteered to appear at the fine hearing court today to ask for leniency due to my circumstances, plus the fact that I had forwarded the letter below to the court in advance to try to explain our extreme financial hardship and homelessness, was completely ignored.

    I am already struggling so badly to fight depression and feelings of hopelessness and being treated by a psychiatrist.
    This a callous and unmitigated action by a Judge who cared nothing about the circumstances of a struggling mother and child. Is a despicable act of ignorance and gives one the feeling that there is NO justice in the UK. The judge asked had I paid anything in the year since the fine was issued. I answered no. But he didn’t ask why. If he HAD asked why, I would have told him that the CAB had arranged that I pay it in November. This can be verified completely by Julie from the Barrhead CAB.
    Where am I going to find the time to do 100 hours of community service, which seems to be the maximum community service ‘sentence’ which can be meted out by the sheriff courts. I am already struggling to care for my son, my elderly mother and do my BSc full time at University.
    The internet and the newspapers are filled with one story of a man given 100 hours for shouting at David Cameron.
    What on earth have I done to deserve such cruel treatment ?

    • SimplyLLB

      Liz, I may be stating the obvious here, but if you weren’t speeding in the first place then you wouldn’t have been called to court. It seems to be that you are saying because you are a depressed, skint, single parent who studies, that you should be above the law?! It’s really not an exclusive club and whilst I can empathise, it’s hardly mitigation for your actions. As you say, you were on an ‘unknown stretch of road’, surely that would imply you should have been driving at ,or below the speed limit. Although it did make me laugh at your suggestion that a 30mph sign jumps out of nowhere and you were summoned to court for speeding in a ‘minor’ way (bearing in mind the approx 10% allowance and that under a certain speed you are likely to get a £60 fine and 3pp’s, I find that a bit hard to swallow). It’s hardly the Sheriff’s fault you hadn’t paid your fine or made any attempt to do so. The problem seems to be with you not taking responsibility for your actions and instead blaming everyone else. Clearly you can afford to run a car and attend Uni full time, so are you as badly off as others? Also, the Sheriff has given you a CSO instead of a fine as you said you can’t pay a fine, this seems like problem solved to me and as always in life, you can’t have it all ways!

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