After unjust incidents of police interfering with free speech, thank goodness common sense is to prevail

A small piece of good news for the New Year comes from the Christian Institute. They report that police officers are to be told they are no longer able to arrest people just because others might find their words or behaviour “insulting”, in new guidelines issued by the College of Policing.

Last year the Government, which had initially resisted reform of the law, agreed to remove the word “insulting” from section 5 of the Public Order Act after the amendment was voted in by the House of Lords in December 2012.

Thank goodness for common sense in the House of Lords. It is extraordinary that this little word “insulting” which can be interpreted according to the whims of those who feel “insulted”, has been allowed to have the arbitrary power it has wielded in recent years. As supporters of the reform have pointed out, the word was at risk of being misinterpreted and had led to many unjust incidents of police interfering with free speech. One person was arrested for saying “woof” to a dog, another for calling a police horse “gay”.

The new guidelines state that when the amendment comes into force on February 1, “words or behaviour that are merely ‘insulting’, or the displaying of writing, signs or other visible representations which are merely ‘insulting’, within the hearing of someone likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, will no longer constitute a criminal offence under section 5 (1).”

Those campaigning to bring in the amendment make an interesting group: they included the Christian Institute, the National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation and other civil liberties groups concerned about free speech. I do not know how often I have heard someone quoting the statement, attributed to Voltaire, “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” How did this fundamental standpoint of a free society get so lost, that talking doggy language to a dog is regarded as a criminal offence?

Keir Starmer QC, former director of public prosecutions, had no objection to the amendment, stating, “We are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as ‘abusive’ as well as ‘insulting’. I therefore agree that the word ‘insulting’ could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.”

Mind you, the word “abusive” is also open to misinterpretation. According to my Oxford illustrated dictionary, it means to “speak insultingly to or about someone”. And if you look up “to insult”, it means “to treat with scornful abuse, to affront”. In other words, there isn’t much difference between them. If you speak your mind forcefully someone could now decide you are being “abusive” – and you could still face potential prosecution. You will still have to be careful how you address dogs and horses.