Comment: Should the law protect us from insults?

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In the past few months there’s been repeated commentary by readers on comments that I’ve found insulting and offensive. Many such comments have been by one or two individuals in large volumes. In my opinion, many comments have been deliberately provocative.

I enjoy comments because of fresh, vibrant, engaging and intelligent debate that usually exists within the comments of stories. I appreciate the banter and humour that exists occurs here. It’s to’s credit that there’s freedom of expression, without excessive restriction, enabling debate to be real and meaningful.

However, increases in offensive postings has made me wonder whether action needs to be taken by or others – and if so, what action? Whilst I would never seek to dilute freedom of expression; freedoms carry responsibilities. However, some contributors to comments – unfortunately and disappointingly – seem unable to exercise integrity and responsibility. I’ve no willingness to detail the offensive comments (I don’t wish them to have further publicity) however regular readers of will be familiar with these issues. Considering this, I began to compare these events in with UK debate concerning amending the Public Order Act.

Amendments have been proposed to the Protection of Freedoms bill seeking to remove the word “insulting” from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Politicians seeking this amendment include Edward Leigh MP and Julian Huppert MP.

The Protection of Freedoms bill is passing through parliamentary process. The bill contains many issues including new frameworks for police retention of fingerprints/DNA, a new code of practice on public authority surveillance, outlawing wheel clamping on private land, reducing pre-charge detention periods for terrorist suspects and enabling those having convictions for consensual sex between men aged 16 or over (since decriminalised) to have them disregarded. A wide range of people could potentially benefit from increased rights and freedoms.

Currently, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour” or to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting”. A law used to arrest (and prosecute) religious protesters against homosexuality, a BNP member who displayed anti-Islamic posters, those burning poppies and those repeatedly swearing at police.

Edward Leigh MP stated “People do not like many things from the Bible, but the Bible is the Bible and if people want to quote from it they should be allowed to do so without PC Plod tapping them on the shoulder and telling them that it’s against some piece of legislation”. Mr Leigh claimed that amendment to the Protection of Freedoms bill was to ensure that freedom of speech was not stunted by the Public Order Act.

Lord Deer (former HM Inspector of Constabulary) in the Lords stated that section 5 was “seen by many to be an impediment to the exercise of free speech”. The Bishop of Bristol backed calls for removal of the word insulting from the public order act. The Christian Institute strongly endorse the amendment of the Public Order Act.

The government doesn’t support the amendment, stating there are important issues in the legislation that shouldn’t be threatened. The Home Office have announced a consultation into issues connected to the Public Order Act.

In a recent judgement, Mr Justice Bean upheld an appeal against Thames Youth Court’s conviction of Denzel Harvey for section 5 of the Public Order Act. He’d repeatedly sworn at police, despite being warned regarding his conduct. Harvey was arrested. Magistrates found him guilty of a public order offence. The Court of Appeal quashed the conviction stating the “rather commonplace expletive is heard ‘all too frequently’”. Responding, Simon Reed, vice chairman of the Police Federation said “It’s astounding that you can use every swear word to abuse a police officer and they have to accept it just because it’s common”.

In June 2011, it emerged that Metropolitan Police officers were advised not to arrest anyone verbally abusing police. Guidance stated courts wouldn’t accept that swearing at officers resulted in “harassment, alarm or distress”. The new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe stated that guidance should be scrapped. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, agreed stating that “Public servants are not there to be abused. They’re there to serve society and society must respect them. How can a copper cope with the job if the public are allowed to insult them with impunity?” He stated at the Conservative party Conference in Manchester that “if people swear at the police, they should expect to be arrested. If people feel there are no boundaries … then I’m afraid they will go on to commit worse crimes”.

Freedom of expression is recognised as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states “everyone has the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. However, article 19 states that exercising of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” which may make them subject to restrictions “for respect of the rights or reputations of others … national security, public order or public health and morals”.

Many discussions connected to the Protection of Freedoms bill are linked to freedom of expression for religious organisations. Equally, there have been cases of attempts to restrict the freedom of speech of LGBT communities. Such attempts in restricting LGBT people include legislation by the St Petersburg legislature to prevent “gay propaganda”, African states suppressing any form of discussion of homosexuality etc

UK debate concerns whether there should be a prohibition from insulting another person. Whether or not the Public Order Act is amended, there are other police powers that can used e.g. breach of the peace. However, if “insulting” is removed there could be significant court time consumed deliberating what was “insulting” or “abusive”. The semantics of this may appear reasonable, to a defence solicitor, given the new wording of the act that would occur. In any event, any decision by police to use powers under section 5 Public Order Act 1986 may be tested by both CPS and courts, giving independent scrutiny.

The Home Office are correct seeking a public consultation on amending the Public Order Act. It’s a complex area (despite it being the removal of one word from the Act) given implications that may occur. It would be hasty to act because a segment of the population (predominantly religious people) are concerned their ability to criticise others is hindered. Many cases raised as concerns have not resulted in convictions; thus it could be argued this demonstrates checks and balances in interpretation of the law occur and freedoms are not excessively hindered.

I don’t want to live in a society where people feel free to repeatedly swear at police officers with impunity. The August riots showed the impact of people perceiving they have impunity from prosecution was clear. I don’t want to live in a society where hate crime is tolerated because of freedom of expression. There’s a balance to be reached. We need to stop harassment, abuse and repeated insults. There needs to be checks ensuring that where people are dealt with for intolerance, insult or abuse it’s proportionate and appropriate (the purpose of CPS and the court system).

Regarding comments on, my view is each reader should be responsible for their conduct on comments pages. Most contributors exercise responsibility and are honourable in their conduct – even when comments are robust. Some people are unable to do this – evidenced by repeated, insidious comments that have abused readers of, the LGBT communities etc. has shown a responsible approach by deleting offensive comments identified (reported by other readers).

I’ve discussed with police and some of the more offensive and vitriolic comments. The police have stated that they are convinced that hate incidents have occurred and that some hate crimes appear to be disclosed including potential incitement to hatred.

I don’t feel we should tolerate hate crimes in the street; nor should we tolerate them online. The police shouldn’t be expected to tolerate being repeatedly verbally abused, nor should readers have to encounter abuse.

I hope readers engage with ensuring those deliberately seeking to harass and its readership are identified, have posts deleted and action taken. Some of these processes take time; we need to exercise patience in resolving the problem. We need to maintain the ability to debate robustly, whilst preventing those taking advantage of freedom of expression by being abusive, insulting or inciting hatred.

Stuart Ross is a regular reader of He is a former police officer and currently a clinician working in pre-hospital emergency care. He is a qualified paramedic and has worked clinically for the NHS and Immigration services. He works voluntarily for two regional charities advising on child protection matters.