Hate speech laws in the United Kingdom

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Hate speech laws in England and Wales are found in several statutes. This does not necessarily mean they apply throughout the United Kingdom, given that both Scotland and Northern Ireland have different legal systems. Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation is forbidden.[1][2][3] Any communication which is threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress someone is forbidden.[4] The penalties for hate speech include fines, imprisonment, or both.[5]


In England and Wales the Public Order Act 1986 prohibits, by its Part 3, expressions of racial hatred, which is defined as hatred against a group of persons by reason of the group's colour, race, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins. Section 18 of the Act says:

A person who uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting, is guilty of an offence if—

(a) they intends thereby to stir up racial hatred, or
(b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby.

Offences under Part 3 carry a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment or a fine or both.[6]

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 inserted Section 4A into the Public Order Act 1986. That part prohibits anyone from causing alarm or distress. Section 4A states:

(1) A person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, 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, thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

A person guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both.[7]

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 amended the Public Order Act 1986 by adding Part 3A. That Part says, "A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred." The Part protects freedom of expression by stating in Section 29J:

Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system. Subjective descriptions of a person's actions or behaviour, however abhorrent, crass or objectionable, may not be considered an attempt to spread hate unless the motive is clearly defined as such.

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 amended Part 3A of the Public Order Act 1986. The amended Part 3A adds, for England and Wales, the offence of inciting hatred on the ground of sexual orientation. All the offences in Part 3 attach to the following acts: the use of words or behaviour or display of written material, publishing or distributing written material, the public performance of a play, distributing, showing or playing a recording, broadcasting or including a programme in a programme service, and possession of inflammatory material. In the circumstances of hatred based on religious belief or on sexual orientation, the relevant act (namely, words, behaviour, written material, or recordings, or programme) must be threatening and not just abusive or insulting.[8]

The Football Offences Act 1991 (amended by the Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999) forbids indecent or racialist chanting at designated football matches.[9] For a normative critique of prison being used to regulate hate speech, see Dennis J. Baker and Lucy X. Zhao, The Normativity of Using Prison to Control Hate Speech: The Hollowness of Waldron's Harm Theory (October 17, 2013). (2013) 16(4) New Criminal Law Review 621-656; Buffalo Criminal Law Review, Vol. 16, No. 3, 2013; King's College London Law School Research Paper No. 2013-2. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2341559 or doi:10.2139/ssrn.2341559

Reform Section 5 campaign[edit]

In 2012, a campaign was launched by The Christian Institute to remove the word "insulting" from section 5 of the Public Order Act. The campaign was backed by a number of high-profile activists including comedian Rowan Atkinson and former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis. On 12 December 2012, the House of Lords voted in favour of amending the Public Order Act to remove the word "insulting". In January 2013, the government announced that it would accept the amendment, despite having previously opposed it. The amendment to the Public Order Act was duly passed into law, as section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (see http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2013/22/section/57/enacted). Section 57 of the Act came into force on 1 February 2014.[10]

Selected cases[edit]

On 13 October 2001, Harry Hammond, an evangelist, was arrested and charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986) because he had displayed to people in Bournemouth a large sign bearing the words "Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord". In April 2002, a magistrate convicted Hammond, fined him £300, and ordered him to pay costs of £395.[11][12][13]

On 2 September 2006, Stephen Green was arrested in Cardiff for distributing pamphlets which called sexual activity between members of the same sex a sin. On 28 September 2006, the Crown advised Cardiff Magistrates Court that it would not proceed with the prosecution.[14][15]

On 8 December 2009, Mr Justice Richard Clancy, sitting at Liverpool Magistrates' Court, acquitted Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, hoteliers, of charges under the Public Order Act 1986 and under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Vogelensangs were charged after a guest at their hotel, Ericka Tazi, complained that the Vogelenzangs had insulted her after she appeared in a hijab.[16]

On 4 March 2010, a jury returned a verdict of guilty against Harry Taylor, who was charged under Part 4A of the Public Order Act 1986. Taylor was charged because he left anti-religious cartoons in the prayer-room of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport on three occasions in 2008. The airport chaplain, who was insulted, offended, and alarmed by the cartoons, called the police.[17][18][19] On 23 April 2010, Judge Charles James of Liverpool Crown Court sentenced Taylor to a six-month term of imprisonment suspended for two years, made him subject to a five-year Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) (which bans him from carrying religiously offensive material in a public place), ordered him to perform 100 hours of unpaid work, and ordered him to pay £250 costs. Taylor was convicted of similar offences in 2006.[20]

On 20 April 2010, police arrested Dale McAlpine, a Christian preacher, of Workington in Cumbria, for saying that homosexual conduct was a sin. On 14 May 2010, the Crown decided not to prosecute McAlpine.[21] Later still the police apologised to McAlpine for arresting him at all, and paid him several thousand pounds compensation.[22]


  1. ^ "Public Order Act 1986". www.statutelaw.gov.uk. 
  2. ^ "Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006". www.opsi.gov.uk. 
  3. ^ "Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008" (PDF). 
  4. ^ Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
  5. ^ Besides "hate speech" laws, the United Kingdom has also hate crime laws. For England, Wales, and Scotland, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 makes hateful behaviour towards a victim based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) in a racial group an "aggravating factor" for the purpose of sentencing in respect of specified crimes. A "racial group" is a group of persons defined by reference to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins. The specified crimes are assault, criminal damage, offences under the Public Order Act 1986, and offences under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.http://www.opsi.gov.uk/si/si2003/uksi_20032267_en.pdf
  6. ^ "Public Order Act 1986". www.statutelaw.gov.uk. 
  7. ^ http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1994/Ukpga_19940033_en_1.htm Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
  8. ^ "Legislation.gov.uk". www.opsi.gov.uk. 
  9. ^ Office, Home. "Explanatory Notes to Football (Offences and Disorder) Act 1999". www.opsi.gov.uk. 
  10. ^ Statutory Instruments 2013/2981 art. 3
  11. ^ Mullins, Mark (January 2005). "Incitement to Religious Hatred - A Gag to the Gospel". Christian Voice. Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  12. ^ "Street preacher convicted by magistrates for displaying a sign saying homosexuality is immoral". The Christian Institute. 7 July 2006. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  13. ^ "Hatred is no play on words". TimesOnline. 28 December 2004. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  14. ^ "Anti-gay leaflets charge dropped". BBC News. 28 September 2006. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  15. ^ "Cardiff 'Mardi Gras' Evangelist Charges Dropped". Christian Voice. 28 September 2006. Archived from the original on 28 July 2011. Retrieved 3 May 2010. 
  16. ^ Jenkins, Russell (9 December 2009). "Hotelier Ben Vogelenzang cleared of insulting Muslim guest". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 25 July 2010. 
  17. ^ "BBC - Will & Testament: "Militant Atheist" found guilty of religious harassment". 
  18. ^ "Liverpool Echo: Latest Liverpool and Merseyside news, sports and what's on". www.liverpooldailypost.co.uk. 
  19. ^ "The Blasphemy law is back - MediaWatchWatch". www.mediawatchwatch.org.uk. 
  20. ^ "John Lennon Airport sexual image atheist gets Asbo". BBC. 23 April 2010. Retrieved 23 April 2010. 
  21. ^ Evans, Martin (14 May 2010). "Christian preacher arrested for saying gays were sinful has charges dropped". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 15 May 2010. 
  22. ^ McGowen, Pamela (3 June 2010). "Street preacher wins compensation after Cumbria police wrongful arrest". www.newsandstar.co.uk. Archived from the original on 7 November 2014. 

Further reading[edit]