A man has been arrested, detained and charged for wearing an “offensive” T-shirt, which police said caused people “distress”.
The T-shirt mocked the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died, as “Gods [sic] way” of helping a pest control company. It was spotted in a pub garden, and a photo was posted online.
— laura 👸🏼 (@khfc_laura) May 29, 2016
Many people on the internet were outraged, and the matter was soon reported to the police.
By midday yesterday, West Mercia Police had confirmed the man was in custody. A spokesman told the Liverpool Echo:
“A man from Worcester has been arrested by police today after reports were received of a man wearing a T-shirt printed with offensive comments relating to the Hillsborough disaster.
“The man, aged 50, was arrested by officers this morning, under Section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986, on suspicion that with intent he displayed writing which was threatening, abusive, insulting and caused harassment, alarm or distress.”
Superintendent Kevin Purcell said: “I understand the alarm and distress the offensive language shown on this T-shirt will have caused to both the people in and around the pub and further afield.
“I would like to thank the landlord of the pub for his support and all the members of the public who were in the pub at the time and came forward to report it.
“Police acted very quickly to arrest the individual and he remains in police custody at this time.”
One of these deeply offensive slogans got a man arrested. The other didn't. Funny old world, innit? pic.twitter.com/SdzkMN8vKt
— Martin Daubney (@MartinDaubney) May 30, 2016
Despite the T-shirt’s obviously offence content, many people were surprised and alarmed to learn that you could be arrested and charged for wearing a T-shirt in a supposedly free country.
Responding to such concerns, the Echo interviewed top lawyer to ascertain where to law stands on T-shirts.
Chris Topping, a partner at Broudie Jackson Canter, said: “Wearing a T-shirt with a perceived offensive message is no different to someone coming up to you in the street… People need to be aware of the consequences of expressing a view in any form that could give rise to offence.”
James Parry, from Parry Welch Lacey LLP based in Huyton, explained that if the man was charged with a public order offence the maximum punishment would be a £1,000 fine. If intent was included, there was a possibility of six months behind bars.
“People should not need to be told that wearing clothing displaying a message such as this is stupid behaviour,” he said.
British police have been increasingly vigilant in policing supposedly “offensive” speech crimes in recent years.
At the end of 2014, Police Scotland investigated the provocative, conservative commentator Katie Hopkins for an “offensive” joke about a Scottish nurse being treated for Ebola.
In February this year, Greater Glasgow Police arrested a 41-year-old man under the Communications Act after receiving a report of a supposedly “offensive” comment made on Facebook regarding Syrian migrants arriving on the Isle of Bute.
In April, again, Greater Glasgow Police threatened social media users, ordering them to be “kind” and not “hurtful” unless they wanted to “receive a visit… this weekend”.
And earlier this month, a Muslim Police Chief Inspector for Greater Manchester indicated that, according to his understanding, “freedom of speech does not mean freedom of offending culture, religion or tradition”.