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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Angela Rayner - from teenage mum to the woman who could unify Labour

Corbyn-supporting Rayner mentioned Tony Blair in her speech. 

For those at the Labour party conference feeling pessimistic this September, Angela Rayner’s speech on education may be a rare moment of hope. 

Not only did the shadow education secretary capitalise on one of the few issues uniting the party – opposition to grammar schools – and chart a return to left-wing policies, but she did so while paying tribute to the New Labour legacy. 

Rayner grew up on a Stockport council estate, raised by a mother who could not read nor write. She was, she reminded conference, someone who left school a no-hoper. 

"I left school at 16 pregnant and with no qualifications. Some may argue I was not a great role model for young people. The direction of my life was already set.

"But something happened. Labour's Sure Start centres gave me and my friends, and our children, the support we needed to grow and develop."

Rayner has shown complete loyalty to Jeremy Corbyn throughout the summer, taking two briefs in the depopulated shadow cabinet and speaking at his campaign events.

Nevertheless, as someone who practically benefited from Labour’s policies during its time in government, she is unapologetic about its legacy. She even mentioned the unmentionable, declaring: “Tony Blair talked about education, education, education. Theresa May wants segregation, segregation, segregation.”

As for Rayner's policies, a certain amount of realism underpins her rhetoric. She wants to bring back maintenance grants for low-income students, and the Educational Maintenance Allowance for those in further education. 

But she is not just offering a sop to the middle class. A new childcare taskforce will focus on early education, which she describes as “the most effective drivers of social mobility”. 

Rayner pledged to “put as much effort into expanding, technical, vocational education and meaningful apprenticeships, as we did with higher education”. She declared: "The snobbery about vocational education must end."

Tory critics have questioned the ability of a woman who left school at 16 to be an education secretary, Rayner acknowledged. “I may not have a degree - but I have a Masters in real life,” she said. It could have sounded trite, but her speech delivered the goods. Perhaps she will soon earn her PhD in political instincts too.