Free Speech Win? UK Police Told That Being Offensive Is Not a Crime
British police officers have been advised to focus on actual crimes rather than people being supposedly offensive during “debates on Twitter”.
In new guidance issued by the College of Policing, officers have been told to devote their time towards cutting crime — as rapes, sexual assaults and violent crimes have hit record highs — instead of policing “non-crime hate incidents”, which although not actual criminal offences could still turn up on a criminal background check done by prospective employers.
Over the past five years, some 120,000 non-crime hate incidents have been logged by police, The Times reports. However, late last year, former police officer Harry Miller won a case against the practice, with the appeal court judges agreeing that making a record of his non-crime breached his human rights.
Miller had previously been investigated for supposedly transphobic posts on Twitter, such as stating that trans women are not real women and joking: “I was assigned mammal at birth, but my orientation is fish. Don’t mis-species me”
Though police had determined that no crime had been committed by Miller, it was still logged as a “non-crime hate incident” and Miller was told by police to “check” his “thinking”.
Following the court ruling in favour of Miller, Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledged that “some current practices are having a dangerous impact on free speech and potentially stopping people expressing their views,” but has not yet followed through on promises she would resolve the issue.
The new College of Policing guidance informs officers to not just take the perceived offence of one party as justification to record a “non-crime hate incident”, crucially requiring there to be some evidence of intent to be hostile before an incident can be recorded in the “least intrusive way possible”
Commenting on the update to the guidelines, the College of Policing’s chief executive officer, Andy Marsh, said: “The public rightly expect the police to focus on cutting crime and bringing criminals to justice. While we work to protect the most vulnerable in society, we also have a responsibility to protect freedom of speech. This updated guidance puts in place new safeguards to ensure people are able to engage in lawful debate without police interference.
“In all types of crime it is important for the police to record incidents that could lead to, or be evidence of, criminality — something that has been demanded by public inquiries such as the Macpherson report into the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence,” Marsh continued — although a “non-crime hate incident” is of course not a “type of crime”, by definition.
“The police regularly deal with complex incidents on social media. Our guidance is there to support officers responding to these incidents in accordance with the law, and not get involved in debates on Twitter,” he added.
Though the change in guidance will likely be welcome news to free speech campaigners in the country, there still remains a swath of restrictions on speech in Britain, including being “grossly offensive” or intentionally causing “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another” being crimes under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
Introduced under the left-wing government of former left-wing prime minister Tony Blair, the legislation has been used to arrest thousands of Britons for posts online.
While the Conservative Party has been in power for over a decade, there have been no moves made to remove the draconian legislation, and indeed Prime Minister Boris Johnson has only sought to increase censorship on the Internet with his Online Harms Bill.
Police forces have also contributed to the restrictive climate surrounding free speech in Britain, with some previously encouraging citizens to snitch on their fellow man for “things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person or in writing”.