In a 2000 episode of Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy, the cast quips that the worst thing the English have to deal with are “drive-by arguments.” And, though obviously just a bit of satire, such an incident could have seen you arrested and fined, owing to a sometimes heavy-handed interpretation of Section 5 of the country’s Public Order Act, an act passed in 1986. Section 5, says the UK Parliament,
“makes it an offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” or to display “any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting” within the hearing or sight of a person “likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”.
The word “insulting” in there has been used, on multiple occasions, to enable “some pretty ridiculous arrests,” says the Atlantic Wire.
One student was arrested for asking a police officer if he knew his horse was “gay” while children around. Another student was arrested for saying “woof” to a dog.
Many of the arrests are things that, though that may be unseemly, would likely be protected as free speech elsewhere. The UK Parliament:
Section 5 has been used to arrest and/or prosecute (for example) religious campaigners against homosexuality, a British National Party member who displayed anti-Islamic posters in his window and people who have sworn at the police. Police charged a teenage anti-Scientology protestor, although the charges were later dropped, as they were in a well publicised case of a student arrested for calling a police horse “gay”. Hotel owners were charged (although later acquitted) following a religious discussion with a Muslim guest.
In a December vote of the House of Lords, says the Telegraph, an amendment was passed to remove the word “insulting” from the act. And, the English government says that they are “not minded” to get in the way.
So, dear friends across the pond: insult away.
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