Here’s something I think is an interesting topic for a quick post.
Apparently, the government is considering proposals to change the 1986 Public Order Act, specifically Section 5 thereof, which states that
a person is guilty of an offence if he … uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby
The criminal law also contains provisions intended to protect individuals from various other forms of harassment. For example, the 1986 Public Order Act and its amendment in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act created the criminal offences of “causing harassment alarm or distress” and “causing intentional harassment alarm or distress”, where an offence is committed if an individual “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” Incidentally, these offences also apply to comments made on websites, as do the provisions of the Malicious Communications Act 1988.
The particular focus of the current discussion is the presence of the word “insulting” and whether it should be a criminal offence to insult someone. The first discussion of this that I read was in the context of homophobic abuse, and it’s interesting how it has divided opinion. For example, gay activist Peter Tatchell agrees with the proposed removal of “insulting” from the law, on grounds that it is a threat to freedom of speech, whereas the campaigning organisation Stonewall opposes the change.
This is a subject about which I will attempt to tread delicately, given my past experiences, but I have to say that I largely agree with Peter Tatchell. I don’t think it should be a criminal offence per se to make insulting remarks about another person, even if that insult comprises racist, sexist, homophobic or blasphemous language. I’m not saying that it’s right to insult people in such ways, just that it should not of itself be a matter for the criminal law.
The inclusion of “abusive” and “insulting” seems to have led to a situation in which the Police can interpret the law so widely that they can lock up anyone they don’t like the look of at the slightest provocation. By the same token, the law is so blurred that it is hard to apply where it is supposed to be intended – to stop harassment and intimidation. The proposed changes will not completely simplify matters, as judgement will still be required as to whether the behaviour is actually threatening or not. Some people are more easily intimidated than others.
As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure that amending this act is the best way forward. Perhaps it would be better to repeal it and think again, drawing up something less open to abuse. And yes, I do think it has been abused by the Police for their own ends.
Having said that, I don’t think freedom of speech can be absolute. It has always been tempered by wider considerations. The old argument about shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre and all that. I agree that attempts to restrict it should be kept to a minimum, but there has to be some form of redress if someone oversteps the mark. Abusive, insulting or harassing behaviour in the workplace should be dealt with in terms of internal disciplinary procedures, as many employers have their own codes of conduct to follow if someone misbehaves in such a way and their employees are bound by contracts to observe them. If the employer decides to enforce them, of course…
I find it even more difficult to support the current laws about “incitement”, such as the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which could be used to prosecute people simply criticising other people’s religious beliefs. It seems to me that it must be a poor kind of faith that can’t survive being questioned by others. If language is used that is intentionally threatening it is in any case already covered by the other laws I already mentioned.