The anti-vaxxer’s ‘sovereign citizen’ defence examined
Movement members quoting Magna Carta in bids to challenge Covid-19 regulations
Covid-19 vaccination sites across the UK have been hit by disruption caused by campaigners claiming to be immune from government rules under something called the “sovereign defence”.
Some anti-vax protesters have handed out “fake legal documents” outside hospitals and schools, while others have “sought to remove Covid patients from intensive care wards”, said the BBC. Campaigners have accused the government of “vaccine genocide” in videos posted on social media, and “some groups have even held training camps for their members”.
The anti-vaxxers “believe they possess the legal power to bring leading politicians, civil servants and scientists before so-called ‘common law courts’” for alleged “crimes” related to Covid restrictions and vaccinations, the broadcaster continued. But such claims “have no basis in law”.
A group of so-called sovereign citizens – also known as constitutionalists, common law citizens, non-resident aliens and freemen – descended on the London home of BBC Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine in October to deliver what The Times said “appeared to be bogus legal documents” over his reporting on the pandemic.
Vine tweeted that they had tried to serve an “anti-vaxx writ” on his wife, as he wasn’t at home at the time. These fake legal “writs” urge “all constables and sovereign men and women” to arrest the recipient “on sight and without delay”.
The same month, activists also “stormed an NHS ward” at Colchester Hospital and attempted to serve staff with “bogus legal notices”, The Mirror reported. Footage of the “bizarre incident” showed the group claiming that Covid is a “hoax” and citing “evidence” of alleged law-breaking including documents about the Nuremberg Code, “a set of research ethics outlining rules on human experimentation following the Second World War”, the paper added.
Ideology from the US
The anti-vax groups’ ideology stems from the Posse Comitatus, a far-right, anti-Semitic and anti-government movement that originated in the US in the late 1960s. The ideology reached the UK in the 1990s and has gained prominence here during the pandemic.
“When I covered an anti-lockdown protest in London in May, the first person I encountered was a man eager to tell me why the government had no legal power over him,” wrote BBC journalist Mike Wendling in 2020.
The US authorities view the sovereign citizen ideology as an “extremist movement” and a domestic terrorism threat. According to the FBI, such extremists cause “all kinds of problems – and crimes”. The agency said many sovereign members “don’t pay their taxes”, while others “hold illegal courts that issue warrants for judges and police officers” or clog up the court system with frivolous lawsuits.
Some reportedly “use fake money orders, personal checks, and the like at government agencies, banks, and businesses”. And “that’s just the beginning”, added the FBI, before outlining a series of crimes by sovereign citizens including murder and threatening judges and government officials.
Link to Magna Carta
British members of the sovereign citizen movement believe that they can “opt out” of laws with which they do not agree. This notion is based on a clause in the Magna Carta – the royal charter of English liberties that was signed in 1215 with the aim of bringing peace between King John and his barons.
The clause, also known as Article 61, states that the barons of the land can elect a group of 25 men who will have the power to “claim immediate redress” in order “to keep… the peace and liberties granted and confirmed to them by this charter”.
But the clause was removed from the Magna Carta within a year of its signing and was never incorporated into English statutory law. “There is no mention of a clause 61 or the 25 barons in the 1216 version or the ‘final’ 1225 version of the document,” explained independent fact-checking organisation Full Fact.
Despite providing the basis for fundamental principles in English law, just four clauses from the Magna Carta remain valid today, including the right to a free and timely trial. “None of those still-valid clauses allows citizens to decide which laws should apply to them,” said the BBC’s Reality Check.
Crime number claims
So-called sovereign citizens in the UK have recently begun using a crime reference number – 6029679/21 – in a bid to bolster their claim that vaccination centres are breaking the law.
Earlier this month, four protesters stormed a chemist in Yorkshire and told staff that they would “use force” to stop them from administering Covid vaccines, reported Yorkshire Live. One of the anti-vaxxers claimed to be a “Commonwealth Constable” and that the vaccine was “under criminal investigation by the Met Police”.
But “there is no police investigation”, said Vice News. The crime number “cited religiously by anti-vaxxers” merely indicates that an allegation against the vaccine had been received by the police.
A spokesperson from the Metropolitan Police told Reuters that no criminal investigation into the allegation had been launched and confirmed that “no vaccine centres have been shut down” as part of a non-existent probe.
High-profile movement members
The crime number claims have been spread online by the anti-lockdown movement and conspiracy theorists, many of whom communicate using messaging platform Telegram.
Some of these activists also have large social media followings. On 14 January, US entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, who is an alleged ex-lover of Boris Johnson, tweeted out the case number to her 62,000 followers with the message “Call the police. Shut it ALL DOWN. And whoever doesn’t, will be reported.”
Rachel Goldwasser, a research analyst for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Independent that many of the people who turn to sovereign citizen rhetoric do so “as a last-ditch attempt to gain a sense of control over their lives”.
Goldwasser added that the US had been hit by escalating violence as a result of sovereign citizens and warned that immediate action was needed in the UK to prevent a similar increase. “It is only a matter of time before someone snaps,” she said.