John Richards of Boston (the one in Lincolnshire, not the one in Massachusetts) is an atheist. He decided to express his atheism on his own property in a rather mild way: he put up a letter-sized piece of paper in his window with the slogan "religions are fairy stories for adults."
John Richards was told by officers that he may face arrest if he put up the sign at his Vauxhall Road home, as it could breach the Public Order Act by distressing passers-by.
Now, when I first encountered the story, I thought that Mr. Richards might be exaggerating, or that this might be the act of a single out-of-line officer. In fact, when called on this, the local constabulary merely confirmed it:
In a statement Lincolnshire Police said the 1986 Public Order Act states that a person is guilty of an offence if they display a sign which is threatening or abusive or insulting with the intent to provoke violence or which may cause another person harassment, alarm or distress.
The statement adds: “This is balanced with a right to free speech and the key point is that the offence is committed if it is deemed that a reasonable person would find the content insulting.
“If a complaint is received by the police in relation to a sign displayed in a person’s window, an officer would attend and make a reasoned judgement about whether an offence had been committed under the Act.
“In the majority of cases where it was considered that an offence had been committed, the action taken by the officer would be to issue words of advice and request that the sign be removed.
“Only if this request were refused might an arrest be necessary.
So, it's not as bad as you thought. You don't get arrested immediately for hurting someone's feelings — you only get arrested if you refuse to stop hurting someone's feelings.
Today I'm not going to repeat my usual free speech rant: how suppression of the right to express oneself is vile, how the "balancing" of that right with a supposed right to be free of offense is unprincipled, and how such censorship is dangerous because it arms the state not only with weapons to suppress speech it doesn't like, but with ambiguous standards allowing it selectively to harass enemies.
Instead, I'd like to say a word about character.
What is the character of a person who sees a sign like that in a pensioner's window, and runs to the police to complain?
Could a person with such character stand up, against great odds, in the face of the the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt? Could such a person do his duty, as England expected, at Trafalgar? Could such a person keep calm and carry on? Would such a person fight on beaches, on landing grounds, in fields and streets, in the hills, and never surrender? Is such a person capable of having a finest hour?
I ask because of this: societies that make rules like this one, encouraging its citizens to scamper mewling behind the skirts of the government when faced with the least offense, produce people with the character necessary to take them up on the offer. It is hard to imagine how a nation run by people of that character can endure — or at least, how it can endure as anyplace you'd want to live.