Inciting Hatred Offences

Stirring up hatred against someone because of their race, religious beliefs or sexual orientation may be a criminal offence under the Public Order Act 1986, or other legislation. It could be an offence if certain communications, such as making speeches, publications, plays, as well as online communications, posts and publications, are used to stir up hatred.

In some cases, magistrates have power to grant a warrant to the police to seize inflammatory material. However, prosecutions for inciting hatred must be approved by the Attorney General.

On conviction of an offence of inciting hatred, a prison sentence of up to six months’ imprisonment may be imposed by the magistrates, and/or a fine. In the serious cases, tried in the Crown Court, up to seven years’ imprisonment and/or a fine may be imposed.

What is stirring up racial hatred?

Racial hatred isdefined in the legislation as hatred against a group of people defined by reference to colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins.

The 1986 Act makes it an offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred in the street or in a public speech. It is also an offence to display, publish or distribute written material that is threatening, abusive or insulting with intent to stir up racial hatred. In both cases, it is an offence even if there was no intent to incite hatred, but where hatred is likely to be stirred up regardless.

In the case of a publication, that publication must be considered in context by the court. Relevant factors include the nature of the publication, its circulation and target market, and any special sensitivity that might affect the readership at the time of publication. Expressing anti-racist views through editorial or letters does not excuse the publication of inflammatory racist material for the purposes of the Act.

What is stirring up religious hatred?

The Public Order 1986 was amended by the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 which created a new offence of stirring up hatred against people on religious grounds. It is an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, and it is an offence to display, publish or distribute any written material with intent to stir up religious hatred. Furthermore, it is an offence to use threatening visual images or sounds in a broadcasted programme with intent to stir up religious hatred.

Religious hatred has been defined as hatred against a group of persons defined by their religious belief or lack of religious beliefs. It is for the courts to decide on the facts of the case what is classed as a religion or religious belief, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism. Branches or sects within a religion can also be classed as religious beliefs.

The phrase ‘lack of religious beliefs’ in the legislation protects people who can be defined by, for example, atheism or humanism.

It is important to note that the offence applies only to words that are threatening, not simply ‘abusive’ or ‘insulting’ – this protects free speech. Therefore, the ‘discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse’ of religious beliefs are protected. Similarly, the non-threatening ‘proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system’ is not illegal.

For the purposes of an offence under the 2006 Act, the words used to stir up religious hatred must be intended to do so – recklessness as to whether the words will stir up such hatred is insufficient. This reflects the intention of Parliament that the Act was to prosecute those who seek to set one community against another, and not to stifle any criticism of religion.

What is stirring up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation?

Under the Public Order Act 1986 (amended by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008) it an offence to stir up hatred against someone on the grounds of sexual orientation with intent. Note that the protection includes heterosexuals.

It is therefore an offence to use threatening words or behaviour, or to display, publish or distribute any threatening written material with the intent to stir up hatred on grounds of sexual orientation. It is also an offence to broadcast such material with intent to stir up such hatred.

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About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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