Should you be subject to arrest if you express an opinion which happens to offend some random person who complains? You shouldn’t if you live in a just society, but it could happen in Lincolnshire, Britain, where pensioner John Richards has been warned about his homemade sign which says “Religions are fairy stories for adults.”
According to the 1986 Public Order Act, a person is breaking the law when they display any sign that is “threatening or abusive or insulting” if the intent is to provoke violence or if it simply causes any observer “harassment, alarm, or distress.” I could support the first part, banning signs that are intended to provoke violence. It might be tough to prove intent, but it’s a reasonable restriction.
The rest of it, though, is complete and utter nonsense — especially in the context of religion. We’ve come to a point in today’s world where religious believers are crying about “distress” at almost any criticism of or disdain towards their religious beliefs. This law in effect makes it a crime to criticize or ridicule religion.
John Richards was told by officers that he may face arrest if he put up the sign at his Vauxhall Road home, as it could breach the Public Order Act by distressing passers by.
But Mr Richards has decided to stand up for his beliefs, and stick the poster up, saying that such action implies a threat to free speech. …
He told The Standard: “The police said I could be arrested if somebody complained and said they were insulted, but the sign was up two years ago and nobody responded or smashed the window.
“I am an atheist and I feel people are being misled by religion. I wanted to show people that if they thought they were alone there was at least one other person who thought that.
“I accept that the police emphasised the words could lead to an arrest but the implication is a threat to free speech which surely should be fought.”
In no just or decent society should anyone have to fear arrest or any other official government sanction simply because they are expressing opinions which are unpopular or which cause distress or offense to adherents of any dominant ideology. You can’t insist on being protected from unofficial, social repercussions like criticism or ridicule, but you should be protected from retaliation from the state and police.
Free speech is utterly meaningless if the only speech that’s protected is speech which everyone else finds agreeable. For free speech to mean anything, then offensive, annoying, and distressing opinions must be protected as well.
Freedom of religion is also meaningless if only majority and popular religious beliefs are protected. Freedom of religion must protect the ability to criticize, dismiss, and even ridicule religious beliefs — including the beliefs of the majority.
Because of the huge outcry this story created, the Lincolnshire Police released a statement saying, in part:
“This is balanced with a right to free speech and the key point is that the offence is committed if it is deemed that a reasonable person would find the content insulting.
“If a complaint is received by the police in relation to a sign displayed in a person’s window, an officer would attend and make a reasoned judgement about whether an offence had been committed under the Act.
“In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed.
“Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.
“Very explicit or grossly offensive material may be dealt with under alternative legislation.”
So individual officers become the arbiters over whether it’s “reasonable” that someone is feeling offended. But why? If the point is to protect people from feeling offended, why are only “reasonably” offended people being protected? Why not protect everyone, even the unreasonable? And if some random passerby can be unreasonably offended, how are officers immune from being unreasonably offended, too?
There’s no objective standard of measure here. At best, it’s a cultural standard — which means that majority and dominant religious beliefs become the standards by which officers measure whether or not offense is reasonable. That can only lead to special protections for majority beliefs — beliefs which officers are likely to share and want to protect as much as anyone else.
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