“The Government’s decision to withdraw ‘serious unease’ from the PCSC Bill is welcome news. Yet this amendment fails to address the multiple threats to freedom of speech within the bill.
Whilst it is now conceded that it is not appropriate to restrict speech that simply causes “serious unease”, the legislation still proposes to allow officers to restrict the sharing of beliefs deemed to merely risk causing ‘alarm’ or distress’. The government’s amendment means that the alarm or distress caused need no longer be ‘serious’ thus removing one free speech problem and replacing it with another.
In defending the government’s decision to leave this problematic wording on the bill, the Government Minister noted that “alarm and distress are well understood by the police and the courts”. Whilst this is true, this conveniently ignores the fact that the Public Order Act only allows for the criminalization of alarm and distress when a suspect’s behaviour is shown to also be ‘threatening’ or ‘abusive’. Here we have the potential criminalization of alarm and distress with no safeguards for ensuring that the speech in question is not restricted simply for causing upset.
These proposals, taken together with the fact that the government has redefined protest to include a single individual expressing views in public, will only serve to increase and encourage unjust restrictions on otherwise lawful speech in public spaces. There is nothing on the face of the bill preventing the law from being used as a tool for viewpoint discrimination and censorship.
The bill presents an opportunity, the first in over 35 years, to ensure freedom of speech is robustly protected in public order legislation. It cannot be right that those with controversial viewpoints could now be more at risk of arrest and prosecution based on whether their views comply with the ever-changing standards of the state machinery and society at large.
The government has made numerous assurances that this Bill is nothing to do with restricting freedom of speech. All that’s needed is for those same assurances to be put on the face of the bill. Police officers enforce law, not assurances.”