Tag Archives: Section 5

The freedom to insult those in mourning

Liverpool fans hold up a banner during the club's match against ReadingThe Guardian reports that:

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.


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The removal of ‘insulting’ from Public Order Act is a victory for free speech

This article was written for Left Foot Forward.


MPs have confirmed that the word ‘insulting’ will be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

This is a major victory for an unlikely alliance of free speech campaigners including The Christian InstituteThe National Secular Society and Rowan Atkinson.

Last month the home secretary Theresa May announced that the government was ‘not minded to challenge a House of Lords amendment removing the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

In the past Section 5 had been used against street preachers ‘insulting’ homosexuals and LGBT activists ‘insulting’ religious groups.

As Rowan Atkinson commented, “The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult”

This change in law is a victory for freedom of speech in the UK.

There remains, however, an important limiting role for the law to play. That role is to provide protection to those who are victims of threatening or abusive behaviour.

In 2011 I blogged saying that, “We all hold the right to live without fear or intimidation. This has to be legally separated, however, from being ‘insulted”.

The distinction has finally been acknowledged by the government and the change in the law later in the year is now just a formality.

It is worth noting, though, that even with this change in law, the discussion about what constitutes threatening behaviour compared to ‘insulting’ behaviour will remain. There is a considerable grey area around what the law should interpret to be ‘threatening’ and what it should view as merely ‘insulting’.

For example, ‘My Tram Experience’ – a video showing a vile torrent of racist abuse on a south London tram – sparked two very different interpretations.

thought her behaviour was threatening and therefore called for her arrest, while bloggerSunny Hundal argued that she was simply being insulting.

With the change in law however, the police are some way towards having a clear distinction to follow. We are no longer asking them to be the judge of what behaviour is deemed ‘insulting’, at least.

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I am happy to insult you

Sod off and stop reading my blog. Seriously SOD OFF. Offended? It doesn’t really matter if you are, because I am free to express myself however I see fit as long as it does not intimidate, threaten or harass (for example starting a hate campaign, or victimising an individual). At the moment however, if you felt insulted by me telling you to ‘sod off’ then I would be breaking the law. Specifically, I would be breaking Section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986) which outlaws ‘insulting’ words and behaviour.

This is why I strongly welcome this government’s consultation to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5. The current law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions. This law, as it stands, has been used against Christian streetpreachers who have condemned homosexuality, without them acting in an aggressive or threatening way. What they preach is insulting, but it should not be illegal. Equally it has been used against LGBT activists who have ‘insulted’ religious groups. This position is madness. Freedom of speech is a benchmark of a civilised society. We have to protect it, but we also understand its limitations.

It is right and proper that ‘threatening’ behaviour should be outlawed. We all hold the right to live without fear or intimidation. This has to be legally separated however from being ‘insulted’. On this occasion I am in the strange situation of backing the Christian Institute over the LGBT charity Stonewall.

I am happy to insult and indeed be insulted. So, if you are still reading this, Sod off!


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