Comment: It’s unpatriotic to ban swearing at police

Boris Johnson's quest to ban swearing at police is wrong, short-sighted and counter-productive.

By Ian Dunt

All great political thought derives from the questioning of authority, so it is unsurprising that promising young people tend to swear at the police. They’re not alone. Outside of asking for directions, most interactions with the police are unwanted and unenjoyed. They are uniquely stressful moments and it’s not uncommon for some questionable language to emerge, however unwittingly.

The police, who are terribly sensitive souls, have occasionally been known to act on these moments of rough language. They typically used section five of the Public Disorder Act, which bars "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby". Or at least, they tried to use it. Magistrates were typically unimpressed. Cases would generally follow this pattern: The police officer would describe how the swearing took place. The magistrate would ask the police officer if they had encountered swearing before in their police career. The officer would answer in the affirmative. The magistrate would ask if they also arrested those individuals under section five. The officer would answer no. The case would be thrown out.

This is the precise reason why the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and then the Met itself instructed officers not to arrest where they were the person who alleged the insult. Such sensitivity was simply incompatible with the functional duties of a police officer. If officers went around arresting everyone using expletives outside the pub our society would crease to function.

Today, Boris Johnson told the Tory party conference he wanted to change all this. As must be perfectly apparent, he can do no such thing. He can get the Met, under the willing authoritarianism of new commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, to retract its advice to officers, but he cannot convince magistrates to pass guilty verdicts. All he will do is waste police time and public money on cases that cannot, and should not, be won.

Of course, section five is not just a bad law in relations to the police. It is a bad law in general. The banning of offence is completely at odds with this country's legal tradition. It’s quite plain that were this law to be actively enforced it would contradict free speech. I am insulted by half the things I hear at each of the three party conferences, for instance, but I am civilised enough to refrain from contacting Scotland Yard.

In the case of the police the Act is even more dangerous, because it is an invitation for abuse of power. Of course, most police are far too competent to actually be offended by bad language. Instead, they used section five as a last resort against people they didn't like the look of but who had committed no crime – particularly at protests.

People are allowed to be lippy towards the police, because the police are servants, not masters. At worst it is bad manners. At best it is a patriotic duty. The police response was often to wait for them to swear and then arrest them under section five. Each time this happens two officers are taken off the street for between four to ten hours. It is plainly a sprit-crushing waste of time and money to satisfy their personal grievance.

Boris' suggestion that the law would have been useful during the riots is particularly absurd. If officers had arrested everyone who swore that week we would have had even less police on the streets than we had already. The Johnson solution perpetuates the original problem.

So there you have it. Suggested by Boris at 10am. Categorically shown to be morally and practically self-defeating by lunchtime. Par for the course for the London mayor.

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