“Commander Christine Jones… warned that officers had power under the controversial section 5 of the Public Order Act to step in if non-violent action was the cause of “harassment, alarm or distress” as Thatcher’s coffin makes its way through London to St Paul’s Cathedral.”
So what constitutes causing “harassment, alarm or distress”?
Section 5 of the Public Order Act defines it saying:
“Harassment, alarm or distress. (1) A person is guilty of an offence if he —
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) 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.”
Any thinking person can see problems with this definition. Which is why the word ‘insulting’ will soon be removed from the act altogether.
Assuming that the Commander was not referring to the concept of being insulted, which will soon cease to be illegal, we can assume she was suggesting that people could be arrested for being ‘threatening or abusive’.
But, she also clearly states that she was referring to those practising ‘non-violent action’. What does she imagine will constitute ‘threatening and abusive’ behaviour that could also be described as ‘non-violent’?
Of course there may be examples of non-violent threatening and abusive behaviour. I disagreed with liberal blogger Sunny Hundal when he argued that the now infamous ‘My Tram Experience’ rant was not threatening or abusive. I think those around her did feel threatened and potentially abused.
Commander Jones’ comments though are in the context of protestors planning to turn their backs on the coffin as it passes and to organise a “right jolly knees up”. Both actions could insult people, and I would argue are disrespectful and unhelpful, but cannot be interpreted as ‘threatening or abusive’.
Which leads me to the only logical conclusion available; the Commander was referring to the soon to be obsolete ‘insulting’ section of the act.
She has given a public warning to those planning to protest (which we should remember is their right to do) that they may be arrested for simply insulting someone.
Everyone from staunch Thatcherites through to liberal lefties should be up in arms about this. It simply cannot be justified for the police to make any arrests under this outdated and discredited clause.
We all have the freedom to insult those in morning – it is up to the individual, not the state, whether or not we exercise this freedom.