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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Labour to strip "abusive" registered supporters of their vote in the leadership contest

The party is asking members to report intimidating behaviour - but is vague about what this entails. 

Labour already considered blocking social media users who describe others as "scab" and "scum" from applying to vote. Now it is asking members to report abuse directly - and the punishment is equally harsh. 

Registered and affiliated supporters will lose their vote if found to be engaging in abusive behaviour, while full members could be suspended. 

Labour general secretary Iain McNicol said: “The Labour Party should be the home of lively debate, of new ideas and of campaigns to change society.

“However, for a fair debate to take place, people must be able to air their views in an atmosphere of respect. They shouldn’t be shouted down, they shouldn’t be intimidated and they shouldn’t be abused, either in meetings or online.

“Put plainly, there is simply too much of it taking place and it needs to stop."

Anyone who comes across abusive behaviour is being encouraged to email validation@labour.org.uk.

Since the bulk of Labour MPs decided to oppose Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, supporters of both camps have traded insults on social media and at constituency Labour party gatherings, leading the party to suspend most meetings until after the election. 

In a more ominous sign of intimidation, a brick was thrown through the window of Corbyn challenger Angela Eagle's constituency office. 

McNicol said condemning such "appalling" behaviour was meaningless unless backed up by action: “I want to be clear, if you are a member and you engage in abusive behaviour towards other members it will be investigated and you could be suspended while that investigation is carried out. 

“If you are a registered supporter or affiliated supporter and you engage in abusive behaviour you will not get a vote in this leadership election."

What does abusive behaviour actually mean?

The question many irate social media users will be asking is, what do you mean by abusive? 

A leaked report from Labour's National Executive Committee condemned the word "traitor" as well as "scum" and "scab". A Labour spokeswoman directed The Staggers to the Labour website's leadership election page, but this merely stated that "any racist, abusive or foul language or behaviour at meetings, on social media or in any other context" will be dealt with. 

But with emotions running high, and trust already so low between rival supporters, such vague language is going to provide little confidence in the election process.