Could you be arrested for putting an atheist poster in your window?

Robust debate is a freedom to be celebrated, not feared.

"Religions are fairy stories for adults" is scarcely the most incendiary slogan ever devised. It might be a question on an old-style A-level paper ("discuss"). A pensioner from Boston in Lincolnshire was, however, advised by the police that he risked falling foul of the Public Order Act 1986 if he put the message in his window. He might even face arrest. Well, sort of.

John Richards' "defiant" stand – the word comes from the original report in the Boston Standard – has attracted the support of, among others, the National Secular Society. Their president Terry Sanderson described the police reaction as "completely over the top", adding that "people have got to learn to get a thicker skin." Pavan Dhaliwal of the British Humanist Association commented that the case "shows how subjective the law is, and how it has the real potential to stifle free speech."

Also supportive is Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, the pressure group responsible for highlighting several free speech cases involving Christians. Calvert proclaimed that "It is no business of the criminal law to impinge on such moderate expressions of belief... What possible justification could there be for officers to tell a man he cannot insult religion with a tiny poster in his own window?"

It's important to be clear about what actually happened in this case. First of all, Richards' poster has not, as yet, attracted any complaints. When I spoke to him he told me that the only reaction he had received came in the form of an anonymous letter which supported both the message and his right to display it. Nor were Lincolnshire police acting on their own initiative in warning him of the possible consequences were complaints to be made. They only discovered the existence of the sign because he wrote to them, informing them of his intention and enquiring if it might constitute a criminal offence. In setting out the circumstances in which it might they were, he thinks, "just covering themselves".

Richards, a retired journalist who is also chairman of the Apostrophe Protection Society, denies that the story is a publicity stunt. He contacted the police, he says, because he was worried about the legal position and wanted to protect himself. Nor did the police response cause him to take the sign down – or, indeed, to do anything except contact the Boston Standard. Nevertheless, however trivial, the story does highlight a genuine issue.

Section 5(b) of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence to "display any writing... which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby". The section is notoriously subjective – previous instances in which police have used it as a reason to intervene (and occasionally to bring charges) have involved Christian preachers inveighing against homosexuality, members of Outrage! protesting against the persecution of gay people by Islamic governments, a teenager holding up a sign describing Scientology as "a dangerous cult" and a student who described a police horse as "gay".

Peter Tatchell has argued that it is "sweeping, draconian and has a chilling effect", especially as there is no requirement to prove intent to cause harassment or distress. He is one of many people currently urging that Section 5 be repealed or at least modified by removing the word "insulting". The campaign is spearheaded by an alliance of convenience between the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society, who said in a joint statement earlier this year: 

With such a low threshold, it is too easy for police – and thin-skinned activists – to fall back on when there is controversy and one side claims to feel offended. At the same time there are plenty of other, more targeted, offences available to tackle genuine cases like harassment, incitement and breach of the peace.

"Breach of the peace", however, is at least as much a catch-all as the word "insulting" in the Public Order Act. The real problem may be one of attitude rather than the precise wording of legislation: the existence of an official mindset that sees robust debate as potentially threatening to the tranquility of the public space, as a threat to be managed rather than as a freedom to be celebrated.

The other issue is that of the chilling effect, something that is only increased by the publicity given to unusual or exaggerated cases like that of John Richards.

A poster in your window could cause you serious trouble. Photograph: Getty Images
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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.