It seems that charges against Dale McAlpine, the street preacher who was arrested under the Public Order Act 1986 after telling a PCSO that homosexuality was a sin, have been dropped.
I would be very interested to know why the charges were dropped. A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service is quoted as having said "We keep cases under constant review and following a further review of all the evidence in this case we were no longer satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and we have therefore discontinued the proceedings against Mr Mcalpine," but this doesn't tell me much. The crucial words appear to be "no longer satisfied." Why did they initially believe that there was sufficient evidence? What changed their minds? I'd really like to know, but I doubt that we will ever be told.
Peter Tatchell believes that his own intervention might have been a significant factor. Despite the fact that Mr Tatchell strongly (to put it mildly) disagrees with Mr McAlpine's opinion, he offered to testify in defence of his right to free speech. “Although I disagree with Dale McAlpine and support protests against his homophobic views, he should not have been arrested and charged. Criminalisation is a step too far. Despite my opposition to his opinions, I defend his right to freedom of expression. Soon after I offered to appear as a defence witness and to argue in court for Mr McAlpine’s acquittal, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. The sudden withdrawal of charges may have been mere coincidence but perhaps not.”
To which I say "Well done, Mr. Tatchell." It's not often these days that we hear of people defending the freedom to express opinions they disagree with. The spirit of the age seems to be much more enthusiastic about banning people from expressing offensive opinions. And this is not the first time that Mr. Tatchell has spoken up for freedom of speech. He recently criticised the fine of £1000 imposed on Shawn Holes, an American street preacher who was convicted of "uttering homophobic remarks" in Glasgow.
There is, however, something else that fascinates me. Mr. McAlpine was charged under the Public Order Act with “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.” Many people will recall an incident in which Mr. Tatchell could conceivably have been charged himself under those terms. In 1998, On Easter Sunday, 12th. April 1998, Peter Tatchell entered the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral during the Archbishop’s sermon, and started addressing the congregation. He was charged with "indecent behaviour in a church", contrary to section 2 of the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, but was aquitted.
Why Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act and the not the Public Order Act? I don't know. I suspect that it is because Mr Tatchell's behaviour undoubtedly caused some distress, he was, careful to ensure that while his words were not "threatening, abusive or insulting."
Which, I guess, means the legal question is "Were Mr McAlpine's words threatening, abusive or insulting?"
The political question, however, is this: Why do we have a law on our statute book which means that someone can be guilty of a crime simply for using "insulting" words within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused "distress"?
One for Nick Clegg, I think.
Edit: Thank you to Albert for pointing me toward this fascinating video of Dale McAlpine's arrest.
Note the quote from the constable making the arrest: "It is against the law. Listen mate, we're pretty sure. You're under arrest for a racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence."
Wow. Not just a Section 5 Public Order offence, but a racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence." Oh dear.
Notice, by the way, that Dale McAlpine was aware of Lord Waddington's amendment (attributing it, in the pressure of the moment, to Lord Carey), and of the meaning of the word 'homophobia'. The constables involved don't seem to have been quite as clued up.