What are you talking about?
Let’s make this Saturday (1st February 2014) ‘National Insult Someone Day’. Or at least in England & Wales. That is the day that s57 Crime and Courts Act 2013 comes into force – pretty exciting?
Er, yes. What does that mean?
This amends s5 Public Order Act 1986 which makes it a criminal offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” by deleting ‘insulting’.
So I’ve got freedom of speech back?
Well, don’t get too carried away.
This only applies to s5 (the least serious public order offence). It is still an offence to use threatening words if you are intending to cause a person ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ or “intending to cause that other person to believe that immediate unlawful violence would be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another or whereby that other person was likely to believe that such violence would be used or it was likely that such violence would be provoked”.
Why triggered this ?
Due to concerns that the restrictions on freedom of speech were unduly onerous, there was a consultation by the Home Office looking at, amongst other things) how the s5 offence should be reformed. This got 3,000 responses, mostly in favour of scrapping the prohibition on ‘insulting’ speech. This lead to the changes set out above.
What difference will this make?
Hard to say really. We suspect that in the final analysis the answer will be ‘not much’. It is perhaps telling that the response from the CPS included this – “the DPP subsequently considered the case law in greater depth and advised that the CPS were unable to identify any case that could not be characterised as “abusive” as well as “insulting””.
Which says it all really. There are very few scenarios where someone, without intending any offence, manages to be insulting without abusive. There is still plenty of room for silliness. You are still at risk if you call a horse ‘gay’ because this is probably abusive.
Even if the difference is purely symbolic, this may still have a positive impact. Hopefully it will cause the CPS to pause before charging offences. Also, in future cases where the Art 10 (freedom of expression) question is dealt with, the Court may take the changes on 1st February as an indication from Parliament that a more tolerant approach to speech crime should be adopted.
Well, fuck off then
Charmed. This comes into force on 1st February 2014 and, as it’s still January, I’m calling the police.