Freemen on the land – freedom of belief is not freedom from law
A few weeks ago, Surrey police were faced with the task of forcibly removing a man from his vehicle on the A3, when he resolutely refused to cooperate and locked himself inside. He had been pulled over because the car he was driving was uninsured, and he bitterly resented the intervention of the traffic officers. Of course, regrettably there is nothing unusual about an aggrieved motorist becoming obstreperous when challenged about illegal behaviour, but what made this incident somewhat different from most altercations of this type, was his stated motivation. The arrested individual claimed that he was a “freeman of the land”, and consequently regarded himself as having no legal or moral obligation to comply with the demands of the police or to pay for insurance.
Freeman of, or sometimes Freeman on the Land, are not a structured organisation, but a label adopted by a group of people who subscribe to a complicated philosophy, which they believe enables them to ‘opt out’, or perhaps more correctly, avoid opting in, to statute law and common law as it is understood and interpreted by the courts. In their view, such legal rules are not binding on individuals unless they agree to them, and they are adamant not to behave in any way which might be interpreted as accepting. Consequently, they also feel themselves justified in declining to spend their money on things like third party motor insurance, or taxation, regardless of what legislation might say about it.
Freemen of the Law are a reality found throughout the English speaking world, and have caused high profile problems in Canada and the United States. Given the seriousness with which many Freemen (we are not aware of any of them using the term “Freeperson/people”) take their beliefs, demonstrating a willingness to go to prison or lose their home in preference for cooperating with authorities, and how fundamentally this affects their life, it is very likely that they would met the threshold for protection under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This is the provision which safeguards not simply the right to hold a belief, but the freedom to manifest it as well, and their situation provides a good paradigm example of why the right to express beliefs in practical ways cannot be absolute. In fact, Article 9 allows for the right to be limited for reasons which are:
“necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
People are entitled to believe that the authority of Parliament is a part of an oppressive conspiracy if they wish so. Nevertheless, as soon as they start acting on that belief, the impact on wider society has to be weighed in the balance, and allowing individuals to choose whether or not they want to participate in the Rule of Law is not really a viable option in a safe, democratic and well-ordered community. Many Freemen subscribe to the notion that they are free to act however they please, as long as they don’t hurt anyone else, but who gets to determine what constitutes harm or potential harm? The consensus in this country, as enshrined in law, is that driving without insurance is indeed a damaging activity. Citizens have to pay to fund the Motor Insurers Bureau, so that the victims of uninsured drivers are not left without compensation, meaning that there is a collective cost even if no accident ever occurs. In practical terms, Freemen are sharing roads and physical space with other people, and thereby putting third parties at potential risk. Nobody can plausibly claim in getting behind the wheel that there is zero chance of a crash occurring through driver-error, and therefore, individuals can hardly expect to put others in jeopardy and then abnegate all responsibility should anything bad happen.
Sometimes, there are very good reasons why the expression of minority beliefs have to give way to majority needs and interests, and the rights of other citizens cannot simply be thrown under a bus (or the wheels of an uninsured Freeman) just because they happen to be in the majority. Despite this crucial acknowledgment, it is also crucial to stress that forcing conformity on a minority, and curtailing liberty of freedom or belief should never be done lightly, or with more adverse impact than is strictly necessary. This is clearly why Article 9 has inbuilt safe-guards, minorities cannot have their freedom limited more than is necessary, and any restriction must be proportionate to the need. However, there must always be a balance, and sometimes, as it happens in this particular scenario, that balance will quite properly tip in favour of the majority.
Man calling himself a “freeman of the land” arrested on A3 for obstructing police (Haslemere Herald 8/9/18)
Man calling himself a Freeman on the land denies his own identity to a judge (Somerset Live 4/12/17)
Here’s how Freemen of the Land keep trying to tie up Alberta courts with their spurious beliefs (Edmonton Journal 21/9/16)