Saturday, 14 April 2012


"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." So goes an old saying. It was once a child’s mantra - used to negative insults hurled by another child.

In Western democracies it was never illegal to insult someone or something. Laws against insulting the president and their like were restricted to tinpot dictatorships.

But in our Brave New World, "insulting" is gradually being criminalized. It is a phenomena occurring at all levels of government.

Several years ago the Montreal police asked City Council to make it illegal to address them using insulting terms like pig and donut-eater. They reasoned that if the police couldn’t insult members of the public it was only fair that the public couldn’t insult them. "The goal is to encourage respect toward police officers on the beat, especially at night when bars close and during protests", said Yves Francoeur, president of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, the union representing officers. "It's only a question of respect. We have to respect a code of ethics when we deal with citizens, so they have to respect us too."

As specious as this reasoning may be City council seriously considered a bylaw making it an offence to insult the police, pointing out the example of several other towns and cities in Quebec. Montreal definitely was not alone in considering banning insulting, whether restricted to the police or much broader. For example the City of Nanaimo passed a bylaw in 2003 under the ostensible heading "A Bylaw to Prevent and Prohibit Nuisances and Disturbances" which includes the following provision:  3.1 No person shall disturb the peace, quiet and enjoyment of the community by engaging in drunkenness, profane swearing or indecent, obscene or grossly insulting language on a highway or in a public place.

What is meant by grossly insulting. Calling someone a "fat pig"? The by-law doesn’t restrict offences to shouted insults. An insult spoken on the street (a public place) in a normal tone of voice to another person is an offence.

Similarly the City of Brampton has a by-law which reads: By-Law 93-84 "To Prohibit and Regulate Noise" states that: "… a person shall not, within the City of Brampton, make, create, cause, or cause or permit to be made, noises likely to disturb the inhabitants."

The City of Brampton’s website directs people to "call Peel Regional Police to complain about noise from fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing, or someone using insulting or obscene language or other disorderly conduct. These activities may be criminal offences."

Arizona is becoming famous for its laws and practices which neatly disregard civil liberties. The state recently passed the following legislation: "It is unlawful for any person, with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, annoy or offend, to use any electronic or digital device and use any obscene, lewd or profane language or suggest any lewd or lascivious act, or threaten to inflict physical harm to the person or property of any person. It is also unlawful to otherwise disturb by repeated anonymous electronic or digital communications the peace, quiet or right of privacy of any person at the place where the communications were received."

This legislation takes a law meant to address irritating phone calls and applies it to communication on websites, blogs, list serves and other Internet communication. A group called Media Coalition said in a letter to the State’s governor, Ms. Brewer: "The law is not limited to a one to one conversation between two specific people. The communication does not need to be repetitive or even unwanted. There is no requirement that the recipient or subject of the speech actually feel offended, annoyed or scared. Nor does the legislation make clear that the communication must be intended to offend or annoy the reader, the subject or even any specific person."

The government in the Australian state of Victoria introduced legislation making it a criminal offence to "insult" the Gaming Minister Michael O'Brien. Fines of up to $11,945 would be given to anyone found guilty of upsetting the minister and his staff under the extraordinary new offence which make it an offence to "assault, obstruct, hinder, threaten, abuse, insult or intimidate" the minister or authorised persons exercising "due diligence" in monitoring gambling systems such as pokies."

In Europe hate legislation originally introduced after the War to curtail the re-emergence of Fascism has over the years been expanded to make it a crime to insult religion or religious notions. Islamic groups have been particularly vigorous in using the anti-hate laws to quell negative comments about their religion. In 2001, several Danish politicians were convicted under a provision for allegedly making "anti-Islamic" statements. More recently, in June 2010, the Danish crown prosecutor sought to lift MP Jesper Langballe's parliamentary immunity so that he could face charges under Article 266(b) of their legislation simply for publishing an article about the creeping "Islamisation of Europe" and the subjugated status of Muslim women. 

In France the animal rights activist, Brigitte Bardot, was convicted on charges of inciting racial hatred for her criticism concerning the ritual slaughter of sheep during a Muslim feast. Bardot was ordered to pay €15,000, the fifth time she was fined for inciting racial hatred against Muslims since 1997.

France, in fact, is becoming Europe’s poster boy for velvet authoritarianism. There is a new law that makes it illegal for partners to insult each other or threaten physical violence. Under the legislation offenders could face up to three years in prison and a fine of $NZ135,000. The law, which applies to both married couples and cohabiting partners, has been unanimously approved by French MPs.

In the United Kingdom Sec. 18(1) of the Public Order Act of 1986 (POA) states that "a person who uses threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive, or insulting, is guilty of an offence if: a) he intends to thereby stir up racial hatred, or; b) having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby." Section 5 of the POA makes it a crime to use or display threatening, abusive, or insulting words "within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm, or distress thereby."

This extremely low threshold resulted in Christian hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang being charged in 2009 (but ultimately acquitted) because they called Muhammad a "warlord". Similarly Harry Taylor, an atheist who placed drawings satirizing Christianity and Islam in an airport prayer room, was convicted in April 2010 under Section 5 and given a six-month prison sentence.

In the last two decades much of the impetus to re-introduce blasphemy laws has originated with Muslims. This does not mean that Christian groups will not try to also make it illegal to insult their religion. Section 36 of the Defamation Act passed in Ireland defined a new offence of "Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter which carried a maximum fine of €25,000. The offence consists of uttering material "grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion", when the intent and result is "outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion. The law was aimed as much as anything at a comedian Tommy Tiernan, whose stand-up routine on a TV program, The Late Late Show, parodied the Gospels.

Interestingly much of new authoritarian legislation it originating from middle of the road, slightly right of centre or slightly left of centre governments, which just goes to show that there are many roads that can lead to a police state.


  1. That's not true. In fact in Germany it has been illegal to insult anyone for quite a while. And yes this includes everyday insults against everyday people. Of course it's an extremely minor offense. Just a small fine fine and barely anyone goes through hassle of court just over an insult but it's fact. It's also illegal to use other people's trashcans and so on and so on. It's full of minor laws such as this

    1. " Germany it has been illegal to insult anyone for quite a while."

      Everyone smiled and said nice things to each other in front of the house, while they made lampshades in the back. Don't talk about Gunter's lampshades, it's not polite.

      "It's also illegal to use other people's trashcans..."

      How else will the gestapo know what you specifically are throwing away?

  2. the draconian bylaw made by the City of Brampton has cause a lot of grief anf turmoil to has prevented people to be able to live comfortably .. in there own homes.. it has preventes people from making repairs to their own homes.. and has escalated neibourhood disputes..

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  4. August 14, 2014 A man driving a companies black pick up truck southern exposure property something started screaming at me insulted me using obscene language to me this happened at Gallardis Esso gas station, Hamilton on I was scared I got frightened and I started to cry and my daughter was sitting inside our SUV when this insulted obscene language took place I'm so hurt by this I can't get over this I can't sleep I don't want this happen to anyone else I don't want this guy to get away with it maybe this person the guy could have mental illness just the way he started screaming real yelled at me insulted me and using obscene language to me just because he couldn't wait any longer to use dual gas

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