…because someone is offended.
Freedom of expression must prevail over concern about hurting people’s feelings, the Home Secretary is scheduled to announce on Monday
Police are to be barred from recording non-crime hate incidents just because someone is offended, under plans announced on Monday by Suella Braverman.
The Home Secretary has endorsed new guidance that requires officers to prioritise freedom of expression over offensive, controversial or derogatory language that upsets people.
Officers will be restricted to recording only incidents that are motivated by intentional hostility and pose a real risk of escalating into significant harm.
It aims to reduce the number of non-crime hate incidents which have seen 120,000 people recorded in the past five years. They include “trivial” cases such as a Bedfordshire man who ended up with a police file for whistling the theme tune to Bob the Builder at his neighbour, who perceived racial hatred.
The new guidance drawn up by the College of Policing follows the case of Harry Miller, a retired policeman who won a free-speech battle after being visited by his local force for tweeting about transgender rights. The Court of Appeal ruled the police action had breached his human rights.
Mrs Braverman said: “I have been deeply concerned about reports of the police wrongly getting involved in lawful debate in this country. We have been clear that in recording so-called non-crime hate incidents, officers must always have freedom of expression at the forefront of their minds.
“The new code will ensure the police are prioritising their efforts where it’s really needed and focussing on tackling serious crimes such as burglary, violent offences, rape and other sexual offences.”
In the 40-page guidance, police are told to use their “common sense” and “judgement” so they only record non-crime hate incidents where it is “proportionate” and “necessary” to do so and in a way that does not restrict freedom of expression.
Officers are advised to look for a common-sense reason not to record an incident if the complaint is trivial, irrational or malicious.
The guidance cited the case of an individual who tweeted their belief that a person’s biological sex is more important than self-identified gender, and should be prioritised when decisions are made about access to single-sex spaces.
In handling a police complaint about it, officers are told this would not be recorded as a non-crime hate incident because the “views are an example of a person exercising their freedom of expression to outline a personally-held belief”.
“A reasonable person would accept the discussion as a contribution to a lawful debate, even if they found it offensive or disagreed with it,” said the guidance.
‘Chilling effect on free speech’
Police are urged to make “all efforts to avoid a chilling effect on free speech (including, but not limited to, lawful debate, humour, satire and personally held views).”
The guidance cited as an example a racial-abuse complaint against a social influencer making “one-liner” jokes on identity-based stereotypes. Because there was no evidence of intent to incite hatred or target an individual, it would be disproportionate to infringe their freedom of expression, officers are advised.
To reduce bureaucracy, officers are advised that they can record incidents without the names of the individuals or a lengthy investigation to identify them, if there is evidence of a comment being motivated by hostility but no risk of it escalating into significant harm.
The guidance cited the example of a heterosexual clubber being verbally abused leaving a venue with LGBT friends. Simply recording the incident without personal data would avoid wasting police time on investigating but would flag the need for an increased police presence in future to prevent a repeat.
Stephen Watson, Greater Manchester chief constable, said: “It is not automatically unlawful to say or do things which can be unpleasant, hurtful, distasteful or offensive.
“This guidance is replete with sensible provisions to safeguard victims of hate crime and better distinguishes between that which should involve the police and that which, in a free country, should emphatically not.”
Chris Philp, the policing minister, said the Government was committed to fighting the scourge of hate crime but “the police’s focus must remain on catching dangerous criminals and bringing them to justice”.