from the best-use-of-police-time? dept
Along with ridiculous libel cases, the UK is also infamous for laws that are designed to stop people hurting the feelings of others. Maybe that's a laudable aim, but the end-result is that they can cast a chill over freedom of speech. Here's a classic case from the English town of Boston in Lincolnshire:
A Boston OAP [Old Age Pensioner] who vowed to defy police advice and display an atheist poster has attracted national interest -- and an offer of support from the National Secular Society.
Following the outcry that greeted this story, the Lincolnshire police naturally responded by issuing a press release:
John Richards was advised that putting up a poster at his Vauxhall Road home denouncing religions as 'fairy stories' could be an offence under the Public Order Act.
LincolnshirePolice have not advised Mr Richards that he faces arrest for the specific posters he is displaying and he is not committing any offences by doing so.
So the good news is that the police haven't told Mr Richards that he faces arrest for his atheist poster -- yet; the bad news is that if someone says they are offended by his poster, and the police decide that a reasonable person would agree with them, then he will indeed face arrest unless he takes it down.
The 1986 Public Order Act states that a person is guilty of an offence if they display a sign which is threatening or abusive or insulting with the intent to provoke violence or which may cause another person harassment, alarm or distress. This is balanced with a right to free speech and the key point is that the offence is committed if it is deemed that a reasonable person would find the content insulting.
If a complaint is received by the police in relation to a sign displayed in a person’s window, an officer would attend and make a reasoned judgement about whether an offence had been committed under the Act. In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed. Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.
Since the UK government claims that the current threat level from terrorism is "substantial", you can't help feeling that one way of tackling that would be to free up the police from having to worry about posters in a pensioner's window.