Licensed leafleting means lost liberties in Britain

Josie Appleton explains how a 2005 law that permits local councils to restrict the distribution of leaflets in public spaces is hurting free speech and community life in Britain.

Leafleteers and pamphleteers have been an integral part of British public life for over 200 years. At times when other European countries suppressed unlicensed printing, British cities were known for their irreverent pamphleteers hawking handbills and advertising political meetings, concerts and spectaculars.

So it is ironic that the freedom to leaflet has been lost faster and to a greater extent in the UK than in other European countries. A 2005 law – the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act – allows local authorities to designate areas within which people need a licence to “distribute free literature”.

Those who wish to leaflet must pay a fee – £350 for a Saturday in Basildon, £100 a month in Oxford – and fill in a form, stating where and when they will be leafleting and describing the material they will be handing out. Leafleteers must also register individually and wear a badge. Unlicensed leafleting is an offence punishable by fine or prosecution.

As a result of this law, a long-standing liberty has been lost in a few short years. Nearly a third of councils have restricted leafleting, and their numbers are growing fast (there are now 110 leafleting zones in London alone). In these areas, one citizen’s communication with another becomes a state-licensed activity. Councils rent out pavements or squares to accredited individuals who are then permitted to hand out approved material. Everyday freedom of speech between citizens has all but disappeared in these zones.

Leafleting licences may not present a big problem for corporations that employ PR companies to hand out their leaflets, but restrictions are disastrous for smaller groups like fringe arts festivals, amateur theatres and jazz clubs that use leafleting to build a local audience and cannot cope with these fees or this level of bureaucracy.

Real examples of these restrictions’ disastrous effects abound. A flyer ban in Leicester Square caused the collapse of several comedy nights and a dramatic reduction in audience numbers. One Women’s Institute group in East Hertfordshire was threatened with a fine for handing out leaflets about their art exhibition. Oxford student societies and arts events were asked to pay £100 a month for leafleting. The leafleting licence system in Brighton caused the decline of small experimental music nights. These kinds of events and organisations are the lifeblood of local democracy and community life. It is a sorry state indeed if a group must buy a council licence before they can tell fellow residents about their events.

This is not a matter of litter: leaflets cause no more mess than burger wrappers or crisp packets. It is the official criminalisation of informal community life. Homemade flyers are looked upon with disdain and considered messy simply because they are not commercial advertisements or authorised by government officials.

The result is that events people put together by themselves are stifled. In many areas it has become virtually impossible for a small local event to advertise and win an audience. These laws favour a public space that is dominated by businesses that can pay the licence fee or rent a poster site, as well as official messages from councils themselves, which grow in direct proportion to restrictions on the public’s free speech.

Although leafleting restrictions have been rapid and thorough, those affected are starting to rebel. The owner of a jazz club in Newcastle took the council to court three times, claiming that it was his “fundamental liberty” to hand out leaflets to members of the public. West End comedy clubs also launched a protest petition against Westminster Council’s flyer ban in Leicester Square.

The Manifesto Club has joined with the Liberal Democrat culture peer Tim Clement Jones to increase exemptions from the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act and return ancient leafleting rights to a broader section of the British public. People handing out political, religious or charitable leaflets are already exempt from licence schemes. We are calling for exemptions to be widened so that any person advertising a small-scale event – whether a football match, art exhibition, or a theatre, comedy or music night – would no longer have to buy a council licence.

This would be an important step, returning important lost liberties to British public spaces.

Josie Appleton is director at the Manifesto Club, a UK civil liberties campaign group. If you would like to join the campaign to reform leafleting laws, get in touch.

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  1. Interesting but not surprising. Say what you like about American politics but at least they have a constitution that protects free speech. I don’t think many people in the UK actually realise how little freedom they have, pity really….

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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