Currrently, it is possible to prosecute someone for harassment for expressing ideas or information that merely 'embarrasses' an individual or group of individuals, even where such ideas/information are demonstrably true and even when the individuals are public officials. This prosecutable expression can even take place without communicating directly with the individual(s) i.e. via a website that requires a deliberate act to view.
There are many instances where public officials or organisations have engaged in improper acts, such as fraud, deception, bullying, or other improprieties. A perfect example of abuse of public office involves the recent MP expenses scandals.
Under current law, the PHA allows an individual to be prosecuted for "pursuing a course of conduct" that the alleged victim perceives as "harassment", even if that conduct amounts to nothing more than publishing highly embarrassing but non-personal details of the public official/organsation's conduct in their professional life.
The case of R v Fredrics illustrates this precise set of circumstances, where a former lecturer at a UK university allegedly published a website containing information and documentary evidence of conduct by public officials, including a tape recording of senior staff pressurising students into falsifying responses to the National Student Survey, and email evidence of the pressurising an External Examiner into changing a critical report. Both issues resulted in findings and sanctions by UK quangos against the involved individuals and institution. Yet the VC of this university filed a criminal complaint that resulted in charges against the lecturer and a conviction, that has thus far been set aside, but which has been re-filed by the CPS and is awaiting trial, notwithstanding a police report that found no evidence of harassment in the content of the website.
The PHA requires amending to provide for a Public Interest defence, where it can be shown that the disclosure of this information is a matter of public interest, where the alleged harassment consists of information or comments that are of a professional rather than personal nature, and where there has been no attempt at direct contect of the alleged victim by the alleged perpetrator.
Why is this idea important?
In a democratic society, individuals or organisations should be free to put forth such information exposing the misconduct of public officials or organisations, as such information is often in the wider public interest.
Without a defence of Public Interest, whistleblowers will be afraid to come forward in order to educate and inform the public of the actions of public officials, and even mainstream press organisations might run afoul of the law, if the individual were to claim that they felt 'embarrassed' by the disclosure of their wrongdoing.