“Tory Scum!” – Freedom of Speech?

In a recent case, the High Court was tasked with considering the implications of free speech in the context of public order offences.

The case involved Tory MP Sir Iain Duncan Smith, who was subjected to abuse whilst in the street accompanied by his wife and a colleague.

The prosecution case was that in the footage Ruth Wood (one of the defendants) had called Iain Duncan Smith a ‘Tory cunt’. However, after the footage was played in cross-examination to the Officer in the Case, DC Foy, the Crown accepted that she clearly said ‘Tory scum’. Officers confirmed that some of the other protestors who had been part of the group following Iain Duncan Smith were arrested but not charged.

Ms Wood accepted that she banged her drum and called Iain Duncan Smith’ Tory scum’. She recalled that she had heard the term ‘Tory Scum’ being used throughout the weekend of protests as well as in many other protests she had attended previously.

Indeed, she felt that it was so common that it was not perceived as offensive and had lost its power in the context of protest.

Ms Wood also accepted that she said ‘fuck off out of Manchester’ because she felt strongly that as a result of Conservative Party policies (and those of Iain Duncan Smith specifically), he was not welcome there.

She stated that she had no intention to cause Iain Duncan Smith, or anyone else, any alarm or distress, and she did not perceive that any had, in fact, been caused.

Had she thought it was causing anyone harassment, alarm or distress, she would have stopped.

What was the Court’s ruling?

The District Judge found the protestors not guilty. On appeal, the High Court agreed with the Judge.

In summary, the High Court held:

“So, this was an “insulting words” case. It was not a “threatening” words or behaviour case. It was a case about causing, and intending to cause, “alarm”. It was a case where any crime lay in each of the Interested Parties’ own conduct, not the actions of third parties.

It was a case involving an unassailable finding that the use – in the case of each of them – of the phrase “Tory scum” was “to highlight the policies of IDS”, in the light of identified evidence relevant to that question.

In the light of these points, and in light of all the evidence and points made relating to context and circumstances, there is nothing in my judgment – whether individually or cumulatively – which can serve to undermine as wrong the evaluative conclusion of proportionality at which the Judge arrived, and which was the basis of his finding of reasonable conduct.”

The law in relation to protests is developing at a breakneck pace, and if you are facing investigation or prosecution for a criminal offence relating to protests, you should seek legal advice at the earliest opportunity.

How can we help?

We ensure we keep up to date with any changes in legislation and case law so that we are always best placed to advise you properly. If you would like to discuss any aspect of your case, please contact Tarsem Salhan on 0121 6056000 or at tsalhan@salhan.co.uk.