Legal Insults

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.

7 Responses to “Legal Insults”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with you Peter. I am willing to have my own most deeply held views challenged and insulted so that I can so do the same as part of free debate. (I aim never to insult *people*, but their views are fair game). If there is a clear threat of violence toward one party in the debate, that is something else – but there are other laws for that.

    I would add only that I believe the Labour government which put these foul laws through did it knowingly and deliberately. I know for a fact that they were warned often enough, both in debate and behind the scenes in parliament, that they were enacting laws which would allow the police to pick on whoever they chose (and ignore whoever they chose). I believe that was their aim, and that their bland denials were deliberate lies. Such people were and are unfit for power and I am glad that they no longer have it. This is not to commend the present government uncritically, but they have got this right and it is an important matter.

  2. telescoper Says:

    The 1986 Public Order Act and the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act were both passed by Conservative governments.

    What you say does apply to the 2006 Act, however.

    • telescoper Says:

      Ps. They haven’t changed the law yet. I’m not convinced they will, but I think it’s a debate that has to happen.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The law is somewhat joined-up, and legislation enacted by Labour had the effect of widening the Public Order Act in sinister ways; here is what Wikipedia has to say on the subject of the “Public Order Act”:

      “Part 3A was created by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 with the insertion of new sections 29A to 29N. This part created new offences for acts intended to stir up religious hatred. Sections 29B to 29N are to be further amended by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 when the relevant parts of that act come into force. These further amendments will extend Part 3A to cover intent to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation (to be defined in new section 29AB).”

      As I said, I am willing to have my own most deeply held views challenged and insulted so that I can so do the same as part of free debate, in which I aim never to insult *people*, but regard their views as fair game.


      • telescoper Says:

        The 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act pretty exemplifies the problem with – it’s just a ragbag of measuresand amendments applied to the law like sticking plasters, and lacking any sort of coherent thinking about underlying principles. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act was similarly misguided. Or, as you imply in your previous message (which I’m inclined to agree with), deliberately intended to create pretexts for restricting free speech.

        To give a concrete example I think we both agree on, from different ends of the argument, I don’t think it should be an offence to argue that homosexuality is a sin. It clearly says so in the Bible, so it’s a restriction of religious expression to deny Christians the right to say so. In fact, the law – even as recently amended – does not make it offence to say this. However, in the case of Dale Mcalpine, the police interpreted it that it did. The fact that he was later released and received a formal apology – and damages – is not the point. A pretext existed by which the Police could prevent him making a perfectly lawful protest.. The Police now routinely detain people without charge, citing the nebulous provisions of these various acts. It’s all abhorrent to me.

        Personally speaking, and I’ve said this on here before, it doesn’t bother me what Christianity teaches about homosexuality. I’m not a Christian. It would be different if someone called for violent persecution, however…

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Well, the debate takes another turn. If somebody makes a speech calling for the crowd of listeners to burn down the nearest gay club, or the nearest church, that should be against the law. But if someone make a speech calling for homosexuality, or for Christianity, to be made illegal, such speech should be permitted.

  3. Also, on this point of the Bible saying homosexuality is a sin, it doesn’t say it is (or should be) illegal. There are many things the Bible and other holy texts say are sins, and yet I suspect there is no Christian alive who does not commit some sins. That is one of the strange things about Catholicism, that they ritualise the confession of sins.

    I have not read the various pieces of legislation you mention here, but I do find the vague, woolly definition of harassment to be so open to interpretation that almost any kind of “speaking one’s mind” can be interpreted as having offended someone, and can lay one open to a charge of harassment. As you both say, it should not be illegal to challenge someone’s views in the strongest possible terms, as long as one is not threatening any kind of physical violence.

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