How do you insult someone legally?

From top left, clockwise: Angry man in car, dictionary entry for "abusive", Man being abusive, woman shouting at phone, student confronted by policeman

Campaigners want to overturn laws targeting "insulting words and behaviour". Just how safe is it to scorn others?

British public life has a lengthy and noble tradition of well-crafted insults.

Shakespeare's "thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows". Winston Churchill's comparison of Charles de Gaulle to a "female llama who has been surprised in the bath". Dennis Healey likening a parliamentary attack by Sir Geoffrey Howe to being "savaged by a dead sheep".

But not all barbs are quite so erudite. For every Churchillian bon mot, many more are made to abuse, intimidate and frighten.

For decades the law has sought to regulate the latter categories. In 1986, section five of the Public Order Act made it illegal to engage in "insulting words or behaviour" in England and Wales.

Winston Churchill Churchill: Master of the put-down

But a backlash has been brewing amid concerns that efforts to protect the public's sensibilities have gone too far.

A campaign called Feel Free To Insult Me has been launched to lobby for section five's repeal, citing a series of cases when the legislation attracted criticism and ridicule.

In one well-publicised 2006 incident, an Oxford University student was arrested after asking a mounted police officer if he realised his horse was "gay". Two years later a teenager was charged after demonstrating outside the London headquarters of the Church of Scientology with a placard declaring that Scientology was not a religion but "a dangerous cult".

Another case saw a pair of Christian hoteliers put on trial after they were wrongly accused of asking a Muslim guest if she was a murderer and a terrorist because she was wearing a hijab.

How to insult people

Scott Capurro three-way picture

Comedian Scott Capurro, renowned for near-the-knuckle humour, says:

"The whole point of stand-up comedy is to annoy people. If you aren't offended you aren't getting your money's worth.

"There's a social contract. When people come to see me they usually know what they are letting themselves in for. However, because comedy is becoming more mainstream, people who aren't prepared for that are sometimes there and it can be a problem.

"But usually the audience likes being part of the show. They like watching you dissect them.

"There are rules. It's never good to make fun of someone's appearance or of people less powerful than you. But the worst thing is to ignore people.

"I have to deal with hecklers. The comedian has to stay in control. I've thrown drinks, I've turned tables over, I've punched people in the head - but that's the worst route to take because it shows you don't have the verbal discourse to handle it."

None of these incidents resulted in a successful prosecution - charges against the Oxford student and the Scientology protester were eventually dropped, while a judge dismissed the case against the hoteliers.

Nonetheless, opponents fear that the public has become inhibited from speaking openly.

The campaign against section five has forged some unlikely alliances, with left-wing human rights activist Peter Tatchell backing it alongside Conservative MP David Davis and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party. Also lending their support are both the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.

According to Tatchell - who was himself charged in 1994 under section five after his pro-gay rights group Outrage! staged a protest against the Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir - the law has created a "chilling effect" on free speech and the right to protest.

"In a free and democratic society, insults should not be a criminal offence," he says. "The law already protects people against discrimination, threats and incitement to violence."

Tatchell accepts, however, that repeal of the law would mean accepting behaviour widely regarded as repugnant.

In 2011 Emdadur Choudhury, a member of the extremist group Muslims Against Crusades, was found guilty under section five after he burned poppies on Remembrance Day as a two-minute silence was observed nearby by service personnel and their families. Choudhury also chanted slogans such as "British soldiers burn in hell".

Likewise, Tatchell accepts that repealing section five could open the door to displays like those of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, whose leaders are currently banned from entering the UK. The group has gained notoriety for picketing military funerals while brandishing lurid slogans condemning homosexuality.

Tatchell believes accepting such displays from a small minority is the price of liberty for all. "Freedom of speech is for everyone, including people we disagree with," he adds.

The law could be in line for reform. A Home Office review launched in October 2011 is examining whether the use of the word "insulting" in the law provides a "proportionate" response and a "necessary balance between the right to freedom of expression and the right of others to not be harassed, alarmed or distressed".

Peter Tatchell The campaign has wide-ranging support, from Peter Tatchell to UKIP, Christian bodies to secularists

Indeed, in Scotland "threatening and abusive" behaviour is outlawed by Section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licencing Act 2010 but insults are not. Under article nine of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order, a person accused of insulting behaviour is not guilty if he or she did not intend their conduct to be insulting and were not aware that it might be.

As it stands, anyone in England and Wales accused of a section five offence can defend it if they can demonstrate that their conduct was "reasonable".

For supporters of the current arrangements, it is not the law that is the problem but its interpretation by over-zealous officials.

Indeed, criminal barrister John Cooper QC argues that the fact none of the most prominent cases - such as those of the "gay" horse, the Scientology protester and the Christian landlords - resulted in convictions demonstrates that the legislation itself is sound.

"The issue is not what the law is, it's how it's interpreted, not just by the police but also by the Crown Prosecution Service," he says. "It's a matter of common sense. The statute is not meant to cover comments about the colour of one's shirt or one's hair."

Sticks and stones, nuts and bolts

Members of Oswald Mosley's Black Shirts

It says a person is guilty under section five if he/she:

  • uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour
  • displays 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"

This offence has the following statutory defences:

  • person was inside a dwelling and had no reason to believe the words or behaviour used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation displayed would be heard or seen by person outside that or any other dwelling
  • that his/her conduct was reasonable

Instead, he says, the prosecution must demonstrate that any insulting behaviour has caused undue distress.

For this reason, Cooper argues, the anti-section five lobby has failed to take account of the trauma that can be caused by the most aggressive insults.

"The people on this campaign are articulate, confident people who are robust enough to shrug off insults," he adds. "But it's not them the law is there to protect - it's there to protect vulnerable people.

"To some, a particularly vicious insult where there is also threatening behaviour is as damaging as a blow to the face."

Unsurprisingly, much of the debate around section five has been framed within the context of broader disputes about the impact and extent of political correctness.

Additionally, a series of high-profile cases involving the conduct of internet "trolls" has highlighted the shifting demarcation of where free speech ends and abusive behaviour begins.

However, for barrister-turned-comedian Clive Anderson - whose cynical barbs famously provoked the Bee Gees to storm off his chat show in 1996 - a much older legal tradition underlies the issue.

"This is not a modern thing," says Anderson, presenter of BBC Radio 4's legal affairs programme Unreliable Evidence. "For centuries people's religious beliefs have been protected by the blasphemy laws.

"In more modern times things like people's sexuality have become an area where we have tried to avoid causing offence. But where the two collide we have a problem - and we've discovered that we've taken on responsibility for standing between them."

Insults might always be a fact of life. The extent to which we tolerate them, however, is an age-old conundrum.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    120 @aphoristic- Andy Murray was in the paper yesterday complaining that foreign players often get away with swearing on court in their own language- I sent mine (114) in latin.

    See how long it takes the moderators to suss that one out ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    One man's insult is another's accurate if colourful depiction. We should have laws against intimidation, not against insult – as the politicians that crafted this demi-brained law should have realised. Generally, where there is little substance behind a jibe it will be rather toothless. And to be insulted by someone you think is an idiot is surely a compliment?

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    My god, what would the HYS moderator do then to get rid of right wing comments?????

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    Removing this law means someone can openly shout abuse at a random person in the street, be threatening and verbally abusive without physically harming the other person and they wouldn't be committing a crime - to me that is senseless!

    This law HAS a purpose, however, it is the execution of it which perhaps needs looking at.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    My favourite Churchill insult is between him and George Bernard Shaw.

    "George Bernard Shaw: You are cordially invited to the premiere of my latest play. Bring a friend, if you have one!

    Churchill: Can't attend the premiere. Can come to the second night, if there is one!"

    Brilliant - I wish I had the guts to do that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.


    "Comments from the anti-PC brigade are a disgrace"

    Oh my gosh, you just insulted me, I'm anti-PC and you called my comments a discrace. Wwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa I want compensation immediately...

    Do you understand the concept of free speech or a free society?

    Or do you not think that matters?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Yes, you can be arrested if your words or actions are likely to lead to a breach of the peace, but a one line put-down could hardly be deemed to be that in most circumstances.
    I've howled at some,even if I'm the target.
    Additionally, if it's a double-entendre it's open to interpretation by it's very nature.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    The best insult I believe is from Jeff Green (not sure) - "he's got a face like Andrew Lloyd Webber licking p**s off a nettle".

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    I was in the supermarket the other day and this woman in front of me had in her basket

    1 bottle of wine, 1 microwaveable curry, 1 mars bar, 1 pint of milk, 1 loaf of bread and 1 ice cream.

    I go to her "I bet you're single"

    She turns round, gives me a wry smile and says "How could you guess?"

    I replied "Because you're dog rough"

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Politicians and whole occupations, e.g. bankers, are insulted daily. Ben Elton made a career out of insulting Mrs Thatcher. Should this be illegal? Of course not. Should it be illegal to express ones opinion? Of course not. Thoughtcrime anyone? Should someone have recourse to law if they feel they have been insulted? Of course not. Is restricting free speech sensible? No.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Screw you all. Hope you feel suitably insulted.

    Ah, nothing like getting into the spirit of the thing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    "But it's not them the law is there to protect - it's there to protect vulnerable people."

    By extension, Mr Cooper, we can therefore bring in a raft of draconian laws because, after all, just about every facet of life could have elements that are harmful to "vulnerable people" (whoever that group is). It's about time we stopped worryiing so much about the possibility of "causing offence".

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.


    Have we really sunk to such depths that all people are concerned with is whether they are still able to insult others?

    No, we have sunk to the depths where some people believe they have a god given right not to ever be insulted or offended.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    The PC brigade - fuelling the paranoia of middle-class Daily Mail readers since 1983.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    I thought the whole point of stand-up comedy was to make people laugh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    A man who makes racist comments on Twitter about a footballer is locked up for 56 days ! Does anyone else think this is disproportionate & wasteful of taxpayers money?

    If for example I don't like what the behaviour & attitude of Pakistani English how do I voice my disapproval in our democracy without being branded racist or as seems likely these days locked up ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    There is an apocryphal story of a soldier who asks his captain "Sir, is it against Queen Regs for a soldier to think", "Of course not" replied the captain, " we encourage our soldiers to think". "In that case" said the soldier, " I think you are a prat". There are always ways to legally insult anyone . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    The problem of course is that quite often its insults first and then fisty cuffs next. The idea that its ok or acceptable for a driver to lean out of a window and shout a torrent of abuse at someone is frankly absurd. Yes some of the examples cited are silly and context is key. But that old saying about sticks & stones well it aint true ask anyone who is subjected to regular verbal abuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    This will offend a lot of people no doubt.

    I have yet to meet someone who suffers from 'Homophobia' and it's unlikely the condition actually exists. ( sorry gay people but you're not that scary ! )

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    I recall a story in which Winston Churchill was told by an irate woman " If i was your wife sir i`d poison you! " to which he replied " If i was your husband madam i`d drink it "


Page 28 of 35



Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.