by Chris M
I’ve just been trawling through some amendments to the law as part of a necessary evil known as CPD training for the year, and just came across a little amendment to the Public Order Act which I didn’t spot when it was tabled, but like the sound of the more I think about it. Taken together with a recent High Court decision about how magistrates should approach claims of an individual that they were ‘harassed alarmed or distressed’ I am happy to say this year is a definite upturn for the issue of robust free speech so I’ll put it up here.
First. The Act.
As it previously stood, section 5 of the Public Order Act made it a crime whilst in public to utter threatening abusive or insulting words within the hearing of anyone likely to be caused harassment alarm or distress thereby. An aggravated form (punishable by imprisonment) made it likewise criminal to do so in circumstances of ‘racial aggravation’.
The amendment is slight in form. It has merely deleted the word ‘Insulting’ from the offence.
That is extremely good news for street debate. Previously, free speech has been very much the hostage of any hearer who could claim he had felt insulted by a remark made and was distressed by it. If it contained ANY remark particular to race etc the utterer was even potentially looking forward to a prison sentence for it, but this deletion has at a stroke removed the capacity of any grievance monger who is spoken to in a manner he or she finds ‘insulting’ to criminalise the utterer thereby. If the words or behaviour are threatening or abusive, and IF they are alarmed or harassed by it,(see below), that would still amount to an offence, and personally I see no problem in that. But from now on if someone happens to say something that another doesn’t want to hear or like the sound of, the other cannot criminalise them for saying it on grounds they feel it to be ‘an insult ‘ to whatever they feel it affronts. This can only be a good thing for robust honest debate.
Likewise, a recent case highlighted the duty of a court to carefully examine a claim on the part of anyone claiming themselves to be a victim of such a calumny that they were in fact caused the distress they claim. That case involved the assertion of a long serving Police Officer that he was distressed by in effect being told to eff off by a cheeky kid. The High Court judgement in thinly minced terms told the good officer to grow a pair, and likewise told the local magistrates to use their own common sense in judging such a claim, which they dismissed out of hand.
So. Last year engaging debate was a minefield for want of such spurious claims and the fear that one might be taken to have uttered something found to be ‘insulting’.
This year it isn’t a crime under section 5 to make mere ‘insult’ to anything or anyone per se, so thankfully we will all just have to grow up and learn to take that as part of the tumult of public life; furthermore, any grievance monger who claims to be harassed alarmed or distressed by anything he has heard will NOT be guaranteed the kowtowing acceptance of the courts of the fact of his poor upset psyche.
I’m quietly encouraged by that.