New Wave of Laws to Curb Anti-Social Acts in Britain

Anthony Kuhn reports on the proliferation of ordinances in the United Kingdom concerning anti-social behavior in public, such as playing loud music, swearing or spitting. The orders are meant to prevent hooligans from disturbing the peace, but some say they go too far in restricting people's individual freedoms.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

British courts have issued some peculiar orders in recent years. They've banned some individuals from wearing hats, others from playing their stereos or riding on the top of double-decker buses. The court orders are part of the government's war on yobs, or hooligans. They're meant to deter anti-social behavior. NPR's Anthony Kuhn visited the war zone and filed this report.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

It's hard to go to Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square on a weekend night without witnessing some drunken brawl.

Unidentified Man #1: Why did you hit him?

Unidentified Man #2: I don't know. I just do what I like.

KUHN: Many Britons feel intimidated by the chaos. Prime Minister Tony Blair says his Labor government will make its war on yobs a priority for its third term.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): People are rightly fed up with street corner and shopping center thugs, rubbish behavior sometimes from children as young as 10 or 11 whose parents should be looking after them, of Friday and Saturday night binge drinking that make our town centers no-go areas for respectable citizens.

KUHN: Since 1999, English and Welsh courts have tailored nearly 4,000 anti-social behavior orders, or ASBOs, to fit suspected individual yobs. One ASBO, for example, banned a London man from knocking on doors after he robbed residents posing as a milkman. A Birmingham court banned a local woman from owning a stereo after she blasted her neighbors with rap music.

Mr. BILL MORRIS (Liverpool Anti-Social Behavior Unit): The anti-social behavior order utterly tells people what they can't do.

KUHN: Bill Morris is head of the Liverpool Anti-Social Behavior Unit.

Mr. MORRIS: We're not asking them to do anything at all other than what we would normally expect people to do, like, don't swear, don't spit, don't cause damage.

KUHN: Morris picks up a red pamphlet that police distributed to local homes and shops. It shows the expressionless faces of two young boys whom one local newspaper has dubbed `hooligans from hell.' He reads the ABSO's injunctions.

Mr. MORRIS: (Reading) `They are not to throw stones or any other missiles, not to verbally abuse any member of the public, not to...'

KUHN: The boys in the pamphlet are Calum Hannan(ph) and Ben Kennedy(ph), both 13.

(Soundbite of coin dropping into box)

KUHN: Calum lives with his mother in government housing on a windswept Liverpool hillside.

(Soundbite of kitchen preparations)

KUHN: Inside, Calum's mother, Pauline Smith(ph), makes tea for visitors.

(Soundbite of water being poured)

KUHN: She denies the allegations against Ben and Calum, that they smoked marijuana, threatened neighbors with iron bars and threw Molotov cocktails and stones. She says that the ASBO and the pamphlets have unfairly stigmatized her son, and she's afraid that the ASBO may have put him on the path to being institutionalized.

Ms. PAULINE SMITH (Calum Hannan's Mother): You can just see that these kids are gonna end up in the young offenders' institution. I mean, they're (unintelligible). We know that, don't we? Because you know your own child, don't you? And I mean, what goes on in them institutions--violence and all--the kids come out with this, so I don't who's got the idea of ASBOs. It (unintelligible) your going to prison. I mean, prison doesn't move, does it?

KUHN: Pauline Smith is studying criminal law and plans to fight the ASBO. She adds that when the court issued the ASBO, it did so on the hearsay testimony of neighbors, which is allowed because ASBOs are a civil, not criminal, procedures.

Some human rights advocates are also concerned about the ASBOs. Alex Gask, a lawyer with the human rights group Liberty, says that attempts to challenge the ASBOs in court have met with little success. He argues that people should be able to wear hats unless there's a law that says otherwise.

Mr. ALEX GASK (Attorney, Liberty): The rule of law should be that everybody is subject to the law and everyone respects it equally. And in this situation, what we're dealing with is individuals being picked out and suddenly saying, `Well, for you, we're going to make up a whole new batch of crimes because we don't like you very much.'

KUHN: Some businesses have even taken to ASBO-like measures. Prime Minister Blair recently proclaimed his support for a shopping mall in Kent. The mall tried to keep out potentially intimidating apparel by banning shoppers from wearing baseball caps or clothes with hoods, even though stores in the mall were selling them. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, London.

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