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Anti-free speech laws: a cause of harassment, alarm and distress
on 1 September 2013
Philip Johnston's short book documents how a series of laws passed in Britain within the last thirty years has eroded free speech. After a potted history of free speech advocacy (taking in Socrates, Milton and Voltaire), Johnston describes how the criminal law is increasingly used to punish people for saying things the authorities don't like. A key step in this process was the passage of Section 5 of the Public Order Act of 1986. This provides that 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.'
Some of the cases that have been brought under this provision are almost beyond words in their stupidity. A Newcastle teenager was prosecuted for growling and barking at two Labradors (the distress required by the Act not being confined to people); a Balliol undergraduate was fined for asking a mounted policeman if he knew his horse was gay; a preacher was fined for holding up the sign: 'Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord'; a drunken Welshman returning from a wedding on a bus was convicted for singing anti-English rugby songs ('I'd rather cut my f****** arm off than be English'); a woman was found guilty of calling her neighbour 'a stupid, fat Australian bitch'. Bizarrely, in this last case the epithet the judge found objectionable was 'Australian' (the neighbour was from New Zealand, and calling her Australian was held to be a racial insult).
These cases cannot be written off as isolated incidents. In 2003 alone, 26,698 people were prosecuted under Section 5, with 18,400 of those being found guilty (source: Hansard, HC Deb, 5 July 2005, c399W). This is not a question of a few prosecutions against unfortunate individuals, but a wholesale assault on the principle of free speech. As Johnston rightly says, 'Section 5 is not needed at all and should be repealed.'
Section 5 by no means the only law to limit free speech in Britain; also notable is the Communications Act 2003, which forbids sending public electronic messages which are 'grossly offensive'. In practice, messages are likely to be found to be unlawful if they are politically incorrect (sexist, racist, homophobic etc.)
When so many crimes of violence are not merely unsolved but uninvestigated, it is appalling that so much police and judicial time is being squandered on prosecuting people merely for their words. Johnston's book is a sobering account of a shameful situation.