Section five of the Public Order Act 1986 removed the requirement for an intention to cause a breach of the peace. Instead, abusive or insulting behaviour was to be penalised if it was within the hearing or sight of a person “likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress”. This marked a further retreat from free speech. As one legal textbook put it, the criminal law had been “extended into areas of annoyance, disturbance and inconvenience”.
Here we are, 25 years on, and once again this provision is proving controversial, not least because it is being used to criminalise what many people might consider simply to be a point of view that others do not like. Tomorrow, a parliamentary campaign is being launched in an effort to persuade the Government to remove the word “insulting” from the Act after a series of arrests and prosecutions of Christians for expressing their opinions.
They include a preacher who was convicted under section five for walking the streets of Bournemouth carrying a placard with the words “Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism”. Another case involved Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, Christian hoteliers in Liverpool charged with insulting a Muslim guest because they engaged in a conversation about religion. Mr. Vogelenzang was alleged to have said that Mohammed was a warlord, while his wife stated that Muslim dress is a form of bondage for women.
They were acquitted, but campaigners argue that they should never have been arrested in the first place and that people like them would be spared months of worry if the law was amended. Other notorious arrests under this measure include that of a teenager who described the Church of Scientology as a “cult” and the Oxford undergraduate who was arrested for asking a police officer if he realised his horse was gay.
But Scientology is a cult, and what if the horse was gay? Thank God for my freedom of speech on this blog, evidently a thing of the past in poor old Britain today.