Salt and Light and Scriptural Homophobia?

If there’s one piece of law that, more than any other, is guaranteed to generate media coverage that makes you want to headdesk then it has to be section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which reads as follows:

5 Harassment, alarm or distress.

(1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or

(b)displays 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.

If you can be bothered to read the CPS guidance on s5 then its fairly evident as to how it should be used in practice:

Whether behaviour can be properly categorised as disorderly is a question of fact. Disorderly behaviour does not require any element of violence, actual or threatened; and it includes conduct that is not necessarily threatening, abusive or insulting. It is not necessary to prove any feeling of insecurity, in an apprehensive sense, on the part of a member of the public (Chambers and Edwards v DPP [1995] Crim LR 896). The following types of conduct are examples, which may at least be capable of amounting to disorderly behaviour:

  • causing a disturbance in a residential area or common part of a block of flats;
  • persistently shouting abuse or obscenities at passers-by;
  • pestering people waiting to catch public transport or otherwise waiting in a queue;
  • rowdy behaviour in a street late at night which might alarm residents or passers-by, especially those who may be vulnerable, such as the elderly or members of an ethnic minority group;
  • causing a disturbance in a shopping precinct or other area to which the public have access or might otherwise gather;
  • bullying.

Section 5 should be used in cases which amount to less serious incidents of anti-social behaviour. Where violence has been used, it is not normally appropriate to charge an offence under section 5 unless the physical behaviour amounts merely to pushing or undirected lashing out of a type likely to cause no more than a glancing blow, minor bruising or grazing. Such conduct may also be classified as disorderly and suitable for a charge under section 91 CJA 1967 in appropriate circumstances.

But it is nevertheless the case that the definition of this offence in law is so drawn in such broad and ill-defined terms as to positively invite ridiculous complaints about minimally offensive bits of public ‘speech’ as here:

The owner of a Christian cafe in Blackpool was warned by police that Bible verses shown on a TV screen breached public order laws.

Jamie Murray, who runs the Salt and Light cafe in Layton, said he was told there had been a complaint about “homophobic material”.

He said: “I was not told what the offending words were.”

Lancashire Police said it had to act on complaints but apologised for the misinterpretation of public order law.

Mr Murray said two police officers visited him last week and told him Bible verses on display in his cafe breached Section Five of the Public Order Act.

“I was quite incredulous at the way they treated me,” he said.

“There was very little respect and they were quite aggressive.”

Mr Murray stated: “I did say to the police, ‘are you seriously telling me I could be arrested for playing the Bible quietly on a screen?’.

“I was told, ‘it’s offensive and homophobic material we are against’.”

Quite – although in the case the offending material appears to have been a DVD which cycles through verses from the New Testament, leaving the café owner to speculate that the offensive and homophobic material referred to by the officers who visited his café may well have been Romans 1, 26-27 (KJV):

26. For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:

27. And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.

Not the most enlightened or welcoming biblical text, certainly, but still hardly the kind of stuff that warrants a dressing down from Mr Plod not least as, like all things scriptural, this passage can be readily afforded a much less pejorative interpretation if you’re the kind of Christian that doesn’t in for hating on teh gayz:

Other Christians interpret the passage differently. They note that the persons involved in the orgy were former Christians, and were heterosexual. They are condemned because they went against their nature — their heterosexual orientation — and engaged in same-gender sexual behavior. By the same reasoning, lesbians and gays who went against their fundamentali nature — their homosexual orientation — and engaged in opposite-gender sexual behavior would also be sinning.

Ordinarily, this is the kind of story that barely merits a mention here at the Ministry, these days, but on this occasion it would be entirely remiss of me to let it pass without pointing out the rather glaring similarites between the treatment visited on this café owner by an overzealous pair of Plods and the situation that Tim Ireland found himself in after winding up on the wrong end of an equally spurious complaint by Nadine Dorries.

I should say, at this point, that I’ve seen some of the documents that Tim has recently obtained via a subject access request under DPA 1998, and even allowing for the need to be circumspect in this matter due to the ongoing criminal proceedings to which Tim refers in his most recent commentary on this issue, I think it is worth noting one very significant difference between his situation and that of this unfortunate café owner. Where the café owner’s visit from Mr Plod appears to have been occasioned by what is, to all intents and purposes, an anonymous complaint, Tim’s voluntary visit to his local station to answer questions about the events which took place at the Flitwick hustings before the last general election was instigated by personal letter from Dorries to the-then Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Police which was sent on House of Commons stationary, a letter that was then passed on to the investigating officer with a hand-written note from the Chief Constable, or rather Gillian, as she was known to Dorries at the time.

I’m also not giving nothing too much away when I note that Tim was not the only blogger about whom Dorries complained in this letter – two other bloggers who have been openly critical of Dorries were also named in the letter, which concludes with a specific request that the now former Chief Constable ‘explore the provision available in section 5 of the Public Disorder [sic] Act and see if it can apply’. I can’t say which bloggers for the time being but, suffice to say, its pretty obvious who Dorries was complaining about even with though their names have been redacted by the police and the one thing they all obviously have in common is that they’ve all published blog posts which Dorries will have found  embarassing because they contain information which calls attention to Dorries’s lack of personal versimilitude.

Despite that rather significant difference, what Tim and the café owner, Jamie Murray, most definitely have in common here is that both were given what amounts to an informal warning by a police officer on the basis of nothing much more than the complaint itself and that, in both cases, this warning – which has absolutely no formal status in law, whatsoever – was given before the complaint had been fully investigated and found to be entirely without foundation.

Again, I don’t believe that I’m giving too much away by noting that the officer who interviewed Tim concluded that he is not a threat to Dorries at all and that there was no evidence at all that he had ever stalked or harassed her – the rest of the material I’ve seen is such a goldmine of laughable nonsense and blatant – and often defamatory – misrepresentations that there’s more than enough material there for Tim to subject Dorries to the kind of public ridicule she so clearly deserves without the need for him to rely on the fact that he was entirely exonerated of any wrongdoing as a final punchline to his own account, when that is put into the public domain.

For now, I think I’ll leave it there other than to note that when Tim is ready to publish you can fully expect the post that lays this whole farrago to rest will be an absolute doozy, so I would suggest you keep a bag of popcorn and tea urn handy.

As for Jamie Murray and his Salt and Light Café, well if you do happen to pop in for a cup of coffe and a biscuit and find the cafe’s TV screen it cycling through Romans 1 then rather that waste the police’s time with a complaint that’s going nowhere, you could just ask him to change over to another of the 15 DVDs in the set. There are maybe half a dozen verses in the entire New Testament which can be said to directly condemn homosexuality in some form – not that the exact meaning of these verse is undisputed – so the odds of running into something that you might possibily find offensive are pretty slim unless you know exactly which passages you should be looking out for.

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  • Good post. I did worry when I saw ‘Salt and Light’ and knew it woukd relate to the cafe incident. But really balanced piece, and from what I’ve read on the matter; entirely appropriate to make comparisons with the Tim Ireland case.

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  • Apples and oranges, Unity. Massive difference between Public Order and Harassment Act legislation. Also, broad range of valid (and otherwise) applications of both in day-to-day policing. I suspect (without sight of Tim’s DPA release, but having read tweets and blogposts), that it was advice on the latter that was offered to Tim, despite Nadine asking or action on the former!

    Interesting about the cafe — if he was only showing bible verses, then presumably any priest reading those same verses in church would be ‘guilty’ of the same offence… As Lancashire Police accepted, a clear misunderstanding of the Public Order Act.

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  • Anonymous

    Apples and oranges?

    No, not really.

    Yes there are marked differences between s5, POA 1986 and PHA 1997 and, yes, both acts have their valid and legitimate uses – I’m not arguing here that the law itself is necessarily an ass, rather that these are law that, because of the very manner in which they are draft, invite a degree of misuse, i.e. vexatious and/or misconceived complaints.

    As I’ve pointed out, I have to be circumspect here, for a variety of reasons, but one thing I think I can point out here is that from what I have seen, the circumstances under which Tim was given ‘advice’ by the police suggest that what was said should have been treated as a confidential matter and that even if the police were justified in informing Dorries of what was done – which is arguable – she then had no justification for making that information public at all, never mind that on previous occasions she has grossly misrepresented the situation anyway.

    You’ll see what I mean when Tim gets to the point at which he’s at liberty to publish the material he’s obtained via DPA.

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  • In my experience, there are quite a number of offences that avail themselves of vexatious complaints.

    I have enormous sympathy for Tim Ireland, who is clearly a victim here. Following some of her more recent outbursts, I wrote to my MP about the way Dorries misuses her public position to abuse people like Ireland, Evan Harris, Ann Furedi etc. etc.

    I do look forward to Tim being able to set out his side of the matter once and for all. If it turns out he really did receive what is sometimes referred to as a ‘Harassment Act Warning’, then he might find the battle is only just beginning. See for example this interesting article in the Guardian:

    “In the same way that unsubstantiated allegations can be disclosed by police on an ECRB, so can the fact of a harassment warning having been issued.” [http://bit.ly/qmrQF2]

  • jcj

    I really don’t see that society can operate on the basis that we each have some sort of right never to be offended or insulted.  The fact is that essential freedoms, of which freedom of expression is one, should be restricted to the least extent necessary.  Part of being an adult is having the maturity to accept that sometimes people may disagree with us, forcefully and even rudely.  If that is upsetting, tough. It looks as if the police may need to be more ready to say to some people that they need to grow up a bit and just learn to ignore communications which they find upsetting.