Yesterday, a man was arrested for wearing a shirt in a pub.
There are parts of the world where that occurrence wouldn’t seem out of place. In some countries, arresting citizens for speech is commonplace, usually because that speech threatens the state and its ideology.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen in any of those countries. This happened in Worcester.
Had the shirt in question been making some kind of political statement, this would be ample cause for public outrage. However, rather than a powerful message striking at the heart of the establishment, the shirt instead carried a crude, distasteful and joke at the expense of the 96 victims of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster.
It is therefore understandable that few people are coming to this man’s defence. The message on his shirt was sickening to anyone with a modicum of decency, and any attempt to defend it would be absurd. Nevertheless, this arrest should still be cause for public outrage.
The comparison between this arrest and those countries with a totalitarian attitude to speech at the start of this article was more than just a facetious way of highlighting the absurdity of this story. Rather it was intended to highlight the very real reason why this arrest cannot go unchallenged.
According to West Mercia Police, whose name firmly places them in the 7th century, the arrest was made under the Public Order Act 1986 in response to “the display of abusive or insulting writing likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”.
The problem is that, for any law to work, it has to be clear and precise. You cannot kill people. You cannot steal another person’s property. You cannot drive on the wrong side of the road. These things are quantifiable; they can be clearly understood, clearly proven and clearly avoided.
On the other hand, displaying writing likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress is about as unclear and imprecise as you can get. Literally any writing can fall into one of these categories. Fifty Shades of Gray causes most people alarm and distress.
This is an affront to liberty for two key reasons. Firstly, the sheer vagueness of this ‘crime’ allows boundless scope for misinterpretation. People can display something they consider inoffensive and fall foul of it. Alarm and distress are reactions people exhibit to something, making it fundamentally subjective. Harassment implies more deliberate intent, but without a clear definition of what constitutes it, this too becomes entirely subjective.
The other reason is far more sinister. As well as innocent mistakes and differences of opinion, laws like this open the door to intentional manipulation. This is where the totalitarian element comes into play. Arrest a man for a joke about Hillsborough, offensive in the eyes of virtually anyone, and you set a precedent for doing the same on far less unanimous grounds.
It’s crucial to draw a clear distinction between the message in question here and the wider issue it brings up. The message on the shirt was horrible, and the pub landlord was right to ask the man to leave. If the man resisted, the landlord would have been right to call the police. But in that scenario their involvement would relate purely to the refusal to leave, and not the message on the shirt.
The fundamental point is that offense lies completely outside the purview of law. This is not a question of judging the man or his shirt. It is a question of being absolutely clear on what the law can and cannot pertain to in a free society. This is a gross violation of those boundaries, and not for the first time.
By all means judge this man, and judge the vile message his displayed. But that judgement is for individuals to make, not the law.
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