'Free' Speech in the U.K.

Picture this: Mr. Astor and his wife are British. On a Sunday, they enter their local London pub for lunch. Before ordering, they hear an elderly, bearded Mr. Brooks opine, "Health care in America is a fascinating, complicated subject." 

Mr. Astor would know that American accent anywhere. He despises America and Americans, starting with their foreign policy and ending with their so-called culture. What civilized person would read an American novel or watch a movie, television show, or play created by an American?

In a rage-filled voice, Mr. Astor tears into Mr. Brooks, concluding with, "You're an American, and they're nothing more than colonials."

Police Officer Cheever, whose conversation with Mr. Brooks was disrupted by the tirade, says to Mr. Astor, "Sounds like you really intended to insult him."


Police Officer Cheever turns to Mr. Brooks and asks if he felt insulted by Mr. Astor's tirade. Mr. Brooks responds with a small yes.

Police Officer Cheever apologizes to Mr. Brooks for Mr. Astor's rudeness, identifies himself as a police officer, and says that since he is off-duty, he will have to call for another officer to arrest Mr. Astor.

Mr. Astor is incredulous. "What law have I broken?"

"Here in the United Kingdom, what you just said amounts to three crimes under the Public Order Act of 1986. I refer to violations of Part 1, Section 4A (intentional harassment, alarm, or distress); Part 1, Section 5 (harassment, alarm, or distress); and Part 3 (racial hatred). If convicted, you may spend years in prison, pay a substantial fine, or both."

"Racial hatred? What are you talking about?"

"The Public Order Act defines 'racial hatred' to include a reference to the victim's nationality, citizenship, or national origin. Furthermore, if a perpetrator such as yourself insults the victim intending to stir up racial hatred, then a crime has been committed."

Mr. Astor falls silent, and Police Officer Cheever calls headquarters. Police Officer Dummit arrives on the scene and takes statements. He arrests Mr. Astor and marches him out past Mr. Astor's tearful wife.  

Once outside, Police Officer Dummit confides in Mr. Astor, "I have good news and bad news. The good news is that since you went after an American, the charges will be dropped. You gave him what he deserved. The bad news is that you will be detained several hours for processing."

Reporter Rose Rothwax rushes past the two men on the way to her laptop to write up her eyewitness scoop of Mr. Astor's arrest. By 6:00 PM, she has finished her story and e-mailed it to her editor. However, she is too excited to eat, so she skips dinner and goes online to read about threats of former arrest, arrests, trials, and convictions under the Public Order Act of 1986. She takes notes on four of the most troubling cases from 2008 to 2010:

1) During the 2009 G-20 London summit, the police informed journalists that if they did not stop recording a protest, they would be arrested under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. As a consequence of the threat, the journalists retreated. The Guardian newspaper published a video of what happened. Section 14 permits a senior police officer to impose conditions on individuals participating in an assembly but makes no reference to imposing conditions on news coverage of an assembly.  

2) Dale McAlpine was handing out Christian leaflets near a shopping center. A police officer approached him and said that there had been complaints about the leaflets. Furthermore, McAlpine would be arrested if he made any comments that were racist or homophobic. Mr. McAlpine replied that he was not homophobic, but the Bible taught that homosexuality was a sin. 

Three other police officers approached him and asked if he had made homophobic remarks. Mr. McAlpine repeated his statement. He was arrested and detained for seven hours, during which time he was forced to provide his fingerprints and a DNA sample. He was charged with causing harassment, alarm, or distress contrary to the Public Order Act. Two weeks later, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charge. The chief superintendent of police said, "Our officers and staff often have to make difficult decisions while balancing the law and people's rights. This is not easy[,] especially when opinions and interpretations differ."

3) Christian hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang heatedly debated religion with a Muslim guest, Ericka Tazi. Afterwards, Ms. Tazi went to the police to demand prosecution of the Vogelenzangs. The case went to trial before the district judge threw out the charge.

4) Henry Taylor altered published cartoons to mock Christianity and Islam and left them in the multi-faith prayer room of the Liverpool John Lennon Airport. The airport chaplain discovered the altered cartoons, felt insulted, and contacted the police. After a trial, the jury convicted Taylor of violating Part 4A of the Public Order Act of 1986. The judge sentenced him to a six-month term of imprisonment suspended for two years, subjected him to a five-year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (banning him from carrying religiously offensive material in a public place), and ordered him to perform one hundred hours of unpaid work, as well as pay 250 pounds to defray court costs.

Ms. Rothwax ponders these cases and concludes that the Public Order Act of 1986 is pernicious. It is not triggered by real damage to person, property, or society. Rather, it abridges freedom of expression, in its spoken and written form, for the trifling reason that a single person is in some way alarmed by the expression. She wonders why the Public Order Act's sweeping language has never snared a major British figure in its sticky web of verbiage. There are two possible explanations. Either the strong are timid (unlikely to say the least), or the authorities hesitate to arrest a strong person for fear that he or she will deploy wealth, power, and publicity to attack anyone enforcing the Act.  

Ms. Rothwax goes to bed. Before falling asleep, she remembers Milton's lines condemning censorship: 

Let her (Truth) and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?

Milton speaks for the British people, and the Public Order Act of 1986 does not. As she drifts into slumber, the reporter has a darker night thought. At present, the Act targets the weak for Kafkaesque prosecution and silences the fearful through intimidation. However, matters could be worse. If the Act falls into a tyrant's hands, it will become his or her best friend.