An official consultation on public order powers has just been launched.
The home secretary, Theresa May, is seeking curfew powers for the police to create no-go areas during riots. The powers are expected to include immediate curfews over large areas to tackle the kind of fast-moving disturbances that swept across
many of England's major cities in August. May also wants to extend existing powers to impose curfews on individuals and stronger police powers to order protesters and rioters to remove face masks.
On a more positive note, the consultation will look at repealing section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act, which outlaws insulting words or behaviour . There are claims the provision hampers free speech and it has been the subject of a strong
Liberal Democrat campaign.
Parliament's joint human rights committee has called for the removal of the word insulting to raise the threshold of the offence, citing a case in which a teenager was arrested for calling Scientology a cult. Evangelical Christians have complained
about the use of section 5 to fine street preachers who proclaim that homosexuality is sinful or immoral.
Those supporting the reform say it would still cover threatening, abusive or disorderly behavour.
The National Secular Society, faith groups and civil liberties groups as well as the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), have long argued that the word insulting should be removed from section 5 of the Public Order Act on the grounds that
it criminalises free speech.
The NSS is also concerned about the use of insulting in Section 4A of the Public Order Act.
In March 2010, Harry Taylor was found guilty of religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress after he left anti-religious cartoons and other material he had cut from newspapers and magazines in the prayer room of John Lennon
airport in Liverpool. Taylor was charged under Part 4A of the Public Order Act after the material was found by the airport chaplain, who said in court that she was insulted, offended, and alarmed by the cartoons and so called the police.
In its legislative Scrutiny of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, the Joint (Parliamentary) Human Rights Committee recommended the amendment of the Public Order Act to remove all references to offences based on insulting words or behaviour. Their report
stated: We consider that this would be a human rights enhancing measure and would remove a risk that these provisions may be applied in a manner which is disproportionate and incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, as protected by
Article 10 of the [European Convention on Human Rights] and the common law.
Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society, said: In an open and democratic society such as ours, none of us should have the legal right not to be offended.
The word insulting should be deleted because in the interests of free speech there must be a higher threshold for criminality than insult . The law needs an urgent re-examination, so we very much welcome this consultation.
Offsite Comment: The Public Order Act: More than a little insulting
What do Peter Tatchell and the Christian Institute have in common? Before you answer, this isn't some deeply unfunny jibe from a Coalition colleague, but one of many unexpected alliances which have formed to oppose Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
This rather insidious Section criminalises all those who use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress . It also
applies to those who display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting .
The decision by the Court of Appeal to overturn the public order conviction of a young suspect who repeatedly said 'fuck' while being searched for drugs, was described as unacceptable by police representatives last night. They claimed the ruling
would undermine respect for officers. [They probably meant undermining 'fear' of officers ,who can currently hand out their own brand of 'justice' using the Public Order Act'].
Overturning Denzel Cassius Harvey's conviction, Mr Justice Bean said officers were so regularly on the receiving end of the rather commonplace expletive that it was unlikely to cause them harassment, alarm or distress .
Harvey was fined £ 50 for using strong language while they attempted to search him for cannabis in Hackney, east London. He told officers:
Fuck this man. I ain't been smoking nothing. When the search revealed no drugs, he continued: Told you, you wouldn't find fuck all. Asked whether he had a middle name, he replied: No, I've already fucking told you so.
Magistrates at Thames Youth Court found him guilty in March last year after hearing that Harvey's expletives were uttered in a public area while a group of teenage bystanders gathered around.
Appealing against his conviction, Harvey claimed that none of those within earshot, especially the two hardened police officers, would have been upset by his swearing.
Mr Justice Bean agreed that the expletives he used were heard
all too frequently by officers on duty and were unlikely to have greatly disturbed them. The judge added that it was quite impossible to infer that the group of young people who were in the vicinity were likely to have experienced alarm or distress at
hearing these rather commonplace swear words used.
Peter Smyth, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said:
If judges are going to say you can swear at police then everyone is going to start doing it. I'm not saying that police officers are going to go and hide in the corner and cry if someone tells them to 'F' off, but verbal abuse is not acceptable and this
is the wrong message to be sending out.
A free speech reform backed by The National Secular Society will come into effect on 1 February next year.
From that date the word insulting will be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act -- a provision that permitted the police to arrest people because someone else thought their words or behaviour insulting . This resulted in people
being arrested for preaching against homosexuality in the street and, in one case, for calling a policeman's horse gay . Others had been arrested for calling Scientology a cult and for saying woof to a dog.
The NSS worked together with the Christian Institute and others to campaign against the insulting provision and after a hard-fought effort, the Government agreed to the reform.
Despite Government resistance, the House of Lords overwhelmingly supported reforming Section 5 in December last year, voting 150 to 54 in favour of an amendment to remove the word insulting . In January the Government gave way and agreed to the
move, which will now come into place following guidance for police forces on the change.