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Repeal Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 – Part 4A

Comment 28th July 2010

Part 4A of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 adds a provision to the Public Order Act 1986 stating:

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he— (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

I believe this represents an unacceptable restriction of the right to free speech and should be repealed or modified. Under the current law, it seems that pretty much any heated argument could be considered against the law. Sometimes people get angry. Sometimes they use insulting words and shout at each other. Sometimes they intend to cause alarm. These should not be crimes.

Whatever happened to the old adage that 'sticks and stones may hurt your bones but words will never hurt you'? I agree it would be great if everyone was always polite, calm and considered. But human existence sometimes isn't like that- people shouldn't be faced with criminal prosecution just because they caused someone 'alarm'.

The provision has another flaw which is that it is up to the subject of the behaviour to determine whether they suffered harassment or alarm. This is unfair- a crime should be a crime based on objective criteria, not based on whether someone subjectively decides they felt 'alarm or distress'

Why does this matter?

This idea is important because the law referred to above is one of a number of statutes (the others being some of the laws relating to the incitement of religious hatred and encouraging or giving succour to terrorism) which has encroached on the ability ot persons to lawfully express themselves freely.

The defence always given by the last Government that the law is only applied by the police and CPS in cases where this is in the public interest is insufficient. We, as citizens, should not have to rely on the judgement of a police officer or CPS official to defend our right to say what we like, whenever we like, to whomever we like.

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