The media has been misled into believing that troublemakers who burn poppies on Remembrance Sunday could escape arrest if using “insulting” words or behaviour is no longer a crime.
But former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald QC, says that argument is “entirely misconceived” because “abusive” words or behaviour would still be against the law.
Newspapers have also mistakenly reported that Muslim extremists who shout abuse at British soldiers, calling them “murderers”, would no longer face police action.
Civil liberty, secularist and faith groups – including The Christian Institute – want the word “insulting” removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act because of free speech concerns.
The Home Office launched a consultation on the idea yesterday, and today articles in The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and The Sun claim the change could let vile firebrands off the hook.
It is likely that misleading briefings have been given to the press by those who are opposed to changing Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
If the word “insulting” was removed from Section 5, the law would still criminalise “threatening and abusive” words or behaviour likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.
In a legal opinion on the matter, Lord Macdonald QC said: “In its opposition to the proposed amendment, the government appears to rely upon R v Haque and Choudhury, a case in which two men were convicted under section 5 after burning poppies at a Remembrance Day parade.
“It seems to be suggested that because this case was prosecuted under the ‘insulting’ provisions, it somehow represents an example of conduct that could no longer be prosecuted in the event that the proposed amendment becomes law.
“In my view, this argument is entirely misconceived. This is because, in his judgment, Chief Magistrate Howard Riddle specifically noted that the defendants’ conduct ‘as well as being insulting…may also be seen as abusive’.”
Lord Macdonald added that there are “many alternative powers in existence to prevent or to prosecute behaviour that is abusive, or risks a breach of the peace, or amounts to harassment, or has religious, racial, sexual or disability hatred elements, or where people are placed in fear”.
The Christian Institute’s Mike Judge said: “The media has been given misleading information about the effects of amending Section 5.
“Of course police would still have the power to arrest poppy burners and rabble-rousers who call soldiers ‘murderers’.
“Such conduct is clearly ‘abusive’ and would therefore still be covered by an amended Section 5 offence, plus other laws.
“There are those within the Government and the police who don’t want to see Section 5 amended.
“But there have been too many cases of police arresting lawful and peaceful citizens simply because someone was ‘insulted’ by their words or actions.
“Let’s free up police time so that, instead of enforcing political correctness, they can deal with the real abuse and the real troublemakers.”