Critiquing Politicians: Abusive Rhetoric or Freedom of Speech - How Far Can You Go?

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01 December, 2023

Craig MacKenzie

In a recent case, the High Court considered the implications of free speech in the context of public order offences.

The case involved Tory MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who was subjected to abuse whilst in the street accompanied by his wife and a colleague.

The prosecution case was that in the footage Ruth Wood (one of the defendants) had called Iain Duncan Smith a 'Tory cunt'. However, after the footage was played in cross-examination to the Officer in the Case, DC Foy, the Crown accepted that she clearly said 'Tory scum'. Officers confirmed that other protestors who had been part of the group following Iain Duncan Smith were arrested but not charged.

Ms Wood accepted that she banged her drum and called Iain Duncan Smith' Tory scum'. She recalled that she had heard the term 'Tory Scum' being used throughout the weekend of protests as well as in many other demonstrations she had attended previously.

Indeed, she felt that it was so common that it was not perceived as offensive and had lost its power in the context of protest.

Ms Wood also accepted that she said 'fuck off out of Manchester' because she felt strongly that as a result of Conservative Party policies (and those of Iain Duncan Smith specifically), he was not welcome there.

She stated that she had no intention to cause Iain Duncan Smith, or anyone else, any alarm or distress, and she did not perceive that any had, in fact, been caused.

Had she thought it was causing anyone harassment, alarm or distress, she would have stopped.

The District Judge found the protestors not guilty. On appeal, the High Court agreed with the Judge.

In summary, the High Court held:

"So, this was an "insulting words" case. It was not a "threatening" words or behaviour case. It was a case about causing, and intending to cause, "alarm". It was a case where any crime lay in each of the Interested Parties' own conduct, not the actions of third parties.

It was a case involving an unassailable finding that the use - in the case of each of them - of the phrase "Tory scum" was "to highlight the policies of IDS" in the light of identified evidence relevant to that question.

In light of these points, and in light of all the evidence and points made relating to context and circumstances, there is nothing in my judgment - whether individually or cumulatively - which can serve to undermine as wrong the evaluative conclusion of proportionality at which the Judge arrived, and which was the basis of his finding of reasonable conduct."

The law in relation to protests is developing at a breakneck pace. If you are facing an investigation or prosecution for a criminal offence relating to protests, you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.

Freedom of Speech: How far does it extend?

Participation in a political protest or demonstration constitutes an act of expression attracting the protection of Article 10, which does not permit the proscription or other restriction of words and behaviour simply because they distress some people or are provocative, distasteful, insulting or offensive.

Free speech includes the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the unwelcome and the provocative, provided it does not tend to provoke violence or some other unlawful conduct because "freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having."

Surprising as it may appear to some, the right of freedom of speech extends to abuse.

As each case is different, it is crucial to instruct a lawyer who can navigate this complex area of law.

How can we help?

Our private criminal defence solicitors are industry-leading and committed to delivering excellence. We offer a 'cutting edge, best in class service' and excel in representing professionals and prominent individuals.

We are a large, national, multi-disciplinary firm representing clients for over 200 years in one form or another. We are ranked in the Top Tier of firms in the United Kingdom by the Legal 500 and Band 1 (highest) by Chambers and Partners.

Our private criminal defence solicitors act in thousands of cases yearly, often in the most serious and most high-profile cases before the Courts. The firm has significant resources and uses the latest technology to prepare cases. Our private criminal defence team will treat you and your case with integrity, sensitivity, and a 'laser focus' towards obtaining a successful outcome for you from the moment of instruction.

For more information contact Craig MacKenzie in our Crime department via email or phone on 01772 220 022. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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