Mike Judge is Head of Communications for the Christian Instititute.
Please don’t be insulted and distressed by the opinions expressed in this article, I don’t want to be arrested by the police. It’s no joke. There have been a number of troubling cases where police officers have unjustly arrested people for using “insulting” words likely to cause “distress” contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
In 2008 a 16-year-old boy was protesting outside a Scientology centre. He faced a criminal trial because he was holding a sign describing Scientology as a “cult”. The police relied upon Section 5 of the Public Order Act. The advocacy group, Liberty, took up his case amid widespread criticism of the police.
In 2006 demonstrators in Worcester were protesting against seal culling using toy seals coloured with red food dye. Police informed them that the toys were deemed distressing by two members of the public. The demonstrators were threatened with arrest and seizure of property under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
In December last year, Christian couple Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang stood trial for “insulting” a Muslim lady during a discussion about religion. During the discussion the couple said Jesus is the Son of God not a prophet of Islam, and they expressed concern that Islamic dress code for women could be oppressive.
The comments are hardly extreme, but astonishingly the couple were arrested and charged with breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act. After a two-day trial at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court the criminal case against them was, quite rightly, dismissed by the judge who also criticised the way the case was handled.
Earlier this year a Christian man was arrested in Workington, Cumbria, for answering a police community support officer’s comments about sexual ethics. Dale Mcalpine said that the Bible describes homosexual conduct as a sin. Let me just be clear, it was the PCSO that initiated the conversation. Other officers were then called to the scene and Mr Mcalpine was arrested. The arrest was captured on a video camera, you can view it for yourself here.
The Mcalpine case has attracted criticism from all sides. Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society labelled it “a ridiculously over-the-top reaction to someone exercising their right to freedom of speech.” Peter Tatchell of OutRage said that people should not be arrested for expressing their views in a “non-threatening and non-aggressive manner.” He added: “If offending others is accepted as a basis for prosecution, most of the population of the UK would end up in court.” Quite.
In all the cases described above the individuals involved were charged with breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act. Under Section 5, it is an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting” words or behaviour in a way that is likely cause alarm or distress to someone. At the lowest threshold, using insulting words that may distress someone is enough to commit the offence.
The Public Order Act was introduced in the mid 1980s against a backdrop of serious industrial unrest and football hooliganism. When the legislation was going through Parliament the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd told the House of Commons that Section 5 was intended to “provide the police with more effective powers to protect the public against hooligan behaviour” but without undermining civil liberties. “[W]e have no desire to use the criminal law to enforce a particular social standard,” he said.
Yet, 20 years later, that is precisely what is happening. That is why we at the Christian Institute are joining with others to urge the Government to repeal the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act. The civil rights group, Justice, has called for this change in the law. So too has Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. Both those groups are troubled by the misapplication of Section 5 and its impact on free speech.
Our police officers are brave people who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. It is clearly right and important that they have sufficient powers to deal with genuine public disorder. Repealing the word “insulting” from the Section 5 offence would not interfere with this vital work. Police can use breach of the peace powers, laws against harassment and under Section 5 “threatening” or “abusive” words or behaviour would remain a criminal offence.
The Government intends to publish a Freedom Bill in this session of Parliament. The purpose of the Bill is to repeal laws that unjustly interfere with civil liberty. Repealing the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act exactly fits the purpose of this Bill. At the time of writing, we don’t know the content of the Freedom Bill. But we know that amending Section 5 has broad support across the political spectrum.
Free speech is a bedrock principle of any true democracy. That freedom is worthless unless it encompasses the dissenting opinion, the awkward belief, the uncomfortable truth. This freedom doesn’t just protect the speaker. It ensures that you, I and everyone has the freedom to hear, the freedom to listen, the freedom to weigh up competing ideas for ourselves. If anyone feels insulted and distressed by that, sorry but that’s the price of living in a free society.