The Court of Appeal (CoA) has upheld a decision to quash convictions for anti-social behaviour order breaches against a man who was arrested while preaching on a street.
Stephen Tallon, King Street, Wexford, had in the High Court successfully challenged one of the first such orders imposed in Ireland.
On Thursday, a three-judge CoA ruled the High Court was correct in quashing the convictions.
Mr Justice Aileen Donnelly, on behalf of the CoA, said between June and July 2020, Mr Tallon received five garda warnings about his behaviour around the Bullring area of Wexford town.
The warnings referred to him as engaging in “excessively loud” public-speaking, “preaching and commentary”, which caused “interference”, “distress and intimidation” and “annoyance and concern” to members of the public and to people working nearby.
The local garda superintendent then applied for a civil order under Section 115 of the Criminal Justice Act which prohibits anti-social behaviour.
The case came before the District Court on August 31st, 2020, which heard evidence from six garda witnesses and nine civilian witnesses.
All told of the disturbance, distress, and annoyance caused by Mr Tallon’s “heralding”, the judge said.
The civilian witnesses included some business owners who gave evidence of Mr Tallon’s preaching, through an electronic speaker. It was described by one witness as “noise pollution” and was a deterrent to customers who did not want to listen to his statements.
Another witness, who the judge said gave “not atypical” evidence, described a situation which had gone on for a number of years in which Mr Tallon espoused his version of “a bible” or espousing on his theories on Covid or his version of morals or his version of how the gardaí behave, how the legislature behaves, how the government behaves and how the judges behave.
Mr Tallon, in his evidence to the District Court, said there was a lack of understanding in Wexford that street preaching was a cornerstone of our society and that freedom of expression applies to it.
He denied having made any personal remarks to people or isolating them or addressing them unless they approached him.
He said he would answer questions raised by people on the street with a biblical quote, and he was genuinely trying to reach out to people.
The District Judge convicted him and ordered that he be prohibited from “engaging in public speaking and recording anywhere within the environs of Wexford Town” including the Bullring.
Later that day, he was arrested for allegedly breaching the order, an offence that carries a fine of up to €4,000, up to six months imprisonment, or both.
He appeared again before the District Court in November 2020 on charges of breaching the order along with two public order charges relating to displaying a sign “which was threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene” with intent to provoke a breach of the peace on September 19th, 2020.
He was also charged in relation to another alleged anti-social order breach on October 7th, 2020, when a garda interpreted his singing as public speaking and heard him “referencing Jesus”.
He was convicted and sentenced to four months imprisonment on each anti-social behaviour breach, to be served consecutively, with the public order offences taken into account.
An appeal was lodged with Wexford Circuit Court and a separate judicial review challenge was brought in the High Court. A stay was placed on his convictions after he undertook to refrain from preaching in Co Wexford pending determination of the proceedings.
The High Court quashed the convictions.
The trial judge said, among other things, that the open definition of “anti-social behaviour”, combined with the low evidential standards required, gave rise to the potential for an unwarranted interference with individual rights in people whose views or behaviours are unpopular, distasteful or discriminatory, but not criminal.
The DPP and the State appealed arguing the High Court had erred. Mr Tallon opposed the appeal.
Ms Justice Donnelly, in her decision, said the civil order was correctly held by the High Court to violate the principle of legal certainty.
This included the lack of certainty over the geographical location which Mr Tallon was prohibited from speaking at, the nature of the prohibition on public speaking and of the phrase “public speaking and recording” as contained in the District Court order.