Rowan Atkinson on England and Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech


This campaign is about freedom of speech, but it is also about the reach of the criminal law. Should we really rely on the state to protect us from insult?

The following passage from a legal textbook, The Law of Public Order and Protest, notes that Section 5

“…extends the criminal law into areas of annoyance, disturbance and inconvenience. In particular, it covers behaviour which falls short of violence or the threat of violence.”

An inconvenience with no threat of violence is not the sort of situation which should warrant the involvement of the police and the courts, but as our Section 5 Victims page demonstrates, that is exactly what is happening.

You may have come across some of these accounts in the press from time to time, but just consider for a moment what it means to be hauled up in front of a policeman, questioned as a criminal or even arrested and dragged to court for speaking your mind or for inadvertently insulting someone.

Sign language barrier


Section 5 was used to issue a court summons to a 16-year-old protester for peacefully holding a placard that read: “Scientology is not a religion it is a dangerous cult.” An allegation that the sign was “abusive or insulting” was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. A civil liberties group intervened and the case was dropped.

Barking Mad


Kyle Little was arrested under Section 5 for what was described as a “daft little growl” and a “woof” aimed at two Labrador dogs. Although the dog owner did not want a prosecution, Mr Little was detained for five hours and prosecuted. He was convicted and fined. On appeal Newcastle Crown Court quashed his conviction. The case cost the taxpayer £8,000.

Tatchell Tussles with Hizb ut-Tahrir


Peter Tatchell and members of the LGBT group Outrage! were arrested and charged under Section 5 for shouting slogans and displaying placards that condemned the persecution of LGBT people by Islamic governments. They were campaigning against a rally led by the fundamentalist Muslim group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, who called for the killing of gay people, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. The placards held up by Outrage! were deemed by police to be insulting and likely to cause distress.

Why the Long Face?


An Oxford student was arrested under Section 5 for saying to a policeman: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” A spokesman for the Thames Valley Police said: “He made homophobic comments that were deemed offensive to people passing by.” Eventually prosecutors said there was not enough evidence and decided to discontinue the case.

Checking Out the Law


Christian hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were charged with breaching Section 5 for engaging in a conversation with a Muslim guest about Mohammed and Islamic dress for women. After lengthy questioning by police they were charged and later tried at Liverpool magistrates’ court. They were found innocent after a judge said their accuser’s evidence was not reliable.

Cafe Crazy?


Cafe owner Jamie Murray was warned by two police officers to stop playing DVDs in his Christian cafe that showed texts from the New Testament. Following a complaint from a customer, the police officers told Mr Murray that they were investigating a possible Section 5 offence. Later Lancashire Police said that the police officers had misinterpreted the Public Order Act and apologized for any distress caused to Mr Murray.

The Law of the Street


An elderly street preacher was convicted under Section 5 for displaying a sign which said homosexual conduct was immoral. Some passers by became angry and tried to remove the sign, others threw water and dirt at Mr Hammond. When police were called, they arrested Mr Hammond. He was prosecuted, convicted, and fined £300 plus £395 court costs. The High Court later upheld the conviction saying magistrates were entitled to find the sign “insulting” to homosexuals. No one in the crowd was charged.

Thought Police

Cumbria street preacher Dale Mcalpine was held for seven hours and charged with a Section 5 offence for saying “homosexuality is a sin.” The comments were not made as part of his public preaching but in response to questions from a police community support officer about the issue of homosexuality. Cumbria Police later admitted they acted unlawfully, and agreed to give £7,000 compensation to Mr Mcalpine in settlement for a claim of wrongful arrest, unlawful imprisonment and breach of his human rights.

Breach of the Preach


Section 5 was used by police officers to try to stop Andy Robertson preaching in Gainsborough marketplace. The police claimed people might be “offended” by the preaching. Mr Robertson continued to preach but described the incident as “disturbing”.

Seal of Disapproval


Animal rights protesters were threatened with arrest and seizure of property under Section 5 for objecting to seal culling by displaying toy seals coloured with red food dye. They were told by the police that the toys were deemed distressing by two members of the public. The police then ordered the protesters to move on.

You couldn’t make it up


An atheist pensioner who placed a small sign in the window of his home saying ‘religions are fairy stories for adults’ was told by police he could be arrested under Section 5 if he refused to remove the poster.  John Richards, from Lincolnshire, emailed police asking what would happen if he put up the A4 sign. Lincolnshire Police replied ‘If a complaint is made then it can lead to you being arrested and dealt with for the offence of section 5 public order causing alarm and distress.’

Supporters of the Reform Section 5 Campaign include: