THE LONG-RUNNING battle to combat anti-social behaviour has seen authorities introduce legislation attempting to stamp out everything from spitting to dropping litter.
However plans from one Northern council to prohibit swearing have quickly run into difficulty with human rights activists labelling it a “staggering misuse” of legislation.
Salford City Council introduced a Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) in parts of the well-heeled Quays docklands development last summer in a bid to curb anti-social behaviour.
But Liberty said it could have a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression because it claims the order fails to define clearly one of the prohibited activities - “using foul and abusive language”.
Anyone who breaches the condition, without reasonable excuse, faces a fine.
In its defence Salford Council pointed towards high levels of public support for the move among its residents, with three in four people apparently having backed its introduction.
Rosie Brighouse, legal officer for Liberty, said: “This is a staggering example of the misuse of a Public Space Protection Order - so vaguely worded it’s impossible for anybody to know whether they’re in danger of breaking the law.
“The right to say what we want should not be restricted at the whim of council officials, able to issue fixed penalty notices on the basis of a poorly defined legal order. Without the freedom to offend, real freedom of expression cannot exist.”
Liberty said it had particular concerns about the impact on artists performing at Salford’s Lowry theatre, including comedian and activist Mark Thomas.
The group said it understood that Thomas had prepared a list of words which he may wish to use and which he intends to send to the council to seek specific guidance on whether or not they will breach the PSPO when he performs on Thursday March 10.
A council spokesman said: “We will discuss Liberty’s concerns privately with them and make sure nothing interferes with Mr Thomas’s artistic performance.
“Liberty are fully aware that breach of a PSPO is only an offence if a person does a prohibited act without a reasonable excuse.
“That allows all the circumstances to be taken into account.
“I appreciate Liberty want publicity for their campaign against these orders but Salford City Council is not going to apologise for using national legislation to help Salford residents when their lives are being made a misery by anti-social behaviour.
“This order was introduced last summer after complaints from local residents about anti-social behaviour, including people throwing wheelie bins into the Quays and tampering with emergency life-saving equipment.
“Over 130 local residents responded to the consultation about whether to introduce this order.
“Of those, 76 per cent were in favour of the order and 94 per cent agreed with a ban on causing general disturbance including being abusive to other persons, using foul language, being rowdy and inconsiderate.”
Anti-social behaviour fines have long-proved controversial in some quarters.
Last year Leeds City Council isued 256 legal notices to businesses for dropping litter.