Don’t Get Involved in Twitter Debates, We Have a Responsibility to Protect Freedom of Speech, British Police Told

By Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.
July 22, 2022Updated: July 22, 2022

Non-crime hate incidents should not be recorded where they are trivial and irrational, according to new guidance from England and Wales’s police body, a move which is being celebrated as “a step in the right direction” by free speech defenders.

Non-crime hate incidents (NCHI) include things like offensive or insulting comments, online, in person, or in writing. They have been used by British police if officers are unsure whether a reported incident amounts to a crime.

‘Big Moment’

The guidance from the College of Policing, published on Thursday, says non-crime hate incidents should not be recorded where they are trivial, irrational, or if there is no basis to conclude that an incident was motivated by hostility.

The news was welcomed by free speech advocates.

Fair Cop is an organisation that was set up by former policeman Harry Miller in response to what it called a “Big Brother” overreach of various police forces.

“It’s a step in the right direction but it relies on the police prioritising common sense over hurt feelings,” Miller from Fair Cop told The Epoch Times by email.

Harry Miller
Former police officer Harry Miller speaks to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Dec. 20, 2021. (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The Free Speech Union (FSU), an organisation dedicated to upholding free speech in Britain, wrote on Twitter that it “has campaigned against NCHIs for a long time and this feels like a big moment.” In April, the FSU succeeded in getting a non-crime hate incident (NCHI) from one of its members permanently deleted from the police record.

“The FSU welcomes the fact that the College of Policing has finally acknowledged that the indiscriminate investigation and recording of non-crime hate incidents has a chilling effect on free speech and revised its guidance accordingly. It’s just a shame it took a victory in the Court of Appeal to force it to do this,” FSU General Secretary Toby Young told The Epoch Times by email.

“I hope the statutory guidance about NCHIs, when it’s issued by the Home Office, curtails the practice even further. This should always have been a matter for Parliament, not an unelected non-governmental organisation,” added Young.

The new guidance added that individuals “who are commenting in a legitimate debate, for example, on political or social issues, should not be stigmatised because someone is offended.”

And that if a record is made, it must be done “in the least intrusive way possible—for example, it may not be necessary to record the name of an individual or the location of an incident.”

“The police regularly deal with complex incidents on social media. Our guidance is there to support officers responding to these incidents in accordance with the law, and not get involved in debates on Twitter,” said Chief Constable Andy Marsh, CEO of the College of Policing, in the new guidance.

Policing Debates on Twitter

The police force has come under fire for being seen to be increasingly policing debates on Twitter, especially with gender-critical women having their views recorded as hate crimes.

One police campaign in the north of England in 2021 saw a digital advertising van with the words “being offensive is an offence” on it accompanied by a rainbow flag, urging people to come forward and report hate crimes. Police eventually apologised after widespread criticism.

In a landmark case in December 2021 brought on by Miller, the Court of Appeal ruled that the recording of NCHIs is an unlawful interference with freedom of expression and contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Humberside Police had contacted Miller for reposting a limerick that was critical of transgender people which was an NCHI, despite no crime being committed.

Miller told the Epoch Times that the “police aren’t fond of common sense and are addicted to victim culture.

“We’ll be watching police forces very closely and are ready to go back to court,” he added.

New Safeguards

Chief Constable Andy Marsh added that the public rightly expects “the police to focus on cutting crime and bringing criminals to justice.”

“While we work to protect the most vulnerable in society, we also have a responsibility to protect freedom of speech. This updated guidance puts in place new safeguards to ensure people are able to engage in lawful debate without police interference,” he said.

“In all types of crime, it is important for the police to record incidents that could lead to, or be evidence of, criminality—something that has been demanded by public inquiries such as the Macpherson Report into the racist killing of Stephen Lawrence,” added Marsh.

Amid accusations that police forces are becoming too focused on political correctness, in May, the UK’s new chief inspector said officers should stay away from “the different thoughts that people have” and focus on serious criminality.

Andy Cooke, who took the senior professional police adviser role last month, said chief constables should avoid “politics with a small ‘p’” and remember there is a clear distinction between what is and is not a crime.

“We’re not the thought police, we follow legislation and we follow the law, simple as that,” he told The Times of London on May 15, referencing the term coined by George Orwell in his 1949 dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

The Epoch Times contacted the College of Policing for comment.

Related Topics