An offensive t-shirt should not be an arrestable offence


I am a Liverpool FC supporter. My grandfather, born and raised in Liverpool, though not much of a football fan offered what support he could muster to LFC. My dad is one of 6 boys, all born and raised in Liverpool and all Liverpool fans. I started my schooling in Merseyside and also began supporting Liverpool.

The horror of the Hillsborough disaster has long been etched into the collective consciousness of most supporters and has, by and large, been seen for what it was even by most. Even the club’s fiercest rivals have tended to treat Hillsborough with the delicacy and sensitivity it warrants. The full extent of the police cover-up, long known by Liverpool fans and strongly suspected by many others, has finally come to light. The whole sorry affair is a shameful reflection on the South Yorkshire police force and a dark day in the history of English football.

Given all of that, it is little wonder that a man wearing an offensive t-shirt referencing Hillsborough has gained such widespread attention. The Guardian report that a Mr Paul Grange, from Worcestershire, entered a pub wearing the offensive garment. It apparently suggested that the Hillsborough disaster was ‘God’s way of helping’ a pest control company. The man was subsequently asked to leave the establishment by the landlord. Shortly after, West Mercia police charged the man with a public order offence for ‘displaying threatening and abusive writing likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’.

Now, clearly Mr Grange is not a man for whom wit is in ready supply. Nor can there be any doubt that his t-shirt was intended to be offensive and shocking. There will be few Liverpool fans who will want to give him any sympathy and many others who will share their disdain. Whether the t-shirt would have caused ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ is obviously a point for debate, but there can be no denying that it was distasteful in the extreme and would be hugely offensive to the victims’ families as well as other Liverpool fans who have felt the whole issue most keenly.

And yet, I’m just not convinced this ought to be an arrestable offence. Unpleasant and repugnant as the sentiment clearly was, unkind and insensitive as the words were, ought a man to be arrested for saying nasty things? Should potential upset at unquestionably distasteful remarks control whether someone is arrested? Certainly it is the landlord’s prerogative to remove Mr Grange from the premises but police involvement seems draconian.

I have been most troubled by the willingness of Christian LFC fans (so, people like me) to so quickly share and like this news story. The same people who, just like me, want the right to be able to speak freely about our religious beliefs are some of the very same people applauding the police arresting a man for displaying, albeit highly unpleasant, words they do not like. It is the unfortunate desire to applaud authoritarianism when my tribe is attacked but to decry it when my other affiliations aren’t allowed to operate. I am afraid we simply cannot have it both ways. Either we want free speech, which means other people may say nasty things about us, or we do not, accepting that we will not be allowed to voice all the views and opinions we may like.

I have said it before (e.g. here), the cause of free speech is easy to defend when it centres on people being censored for saying things with which we agree. It is always a much harder sell when it involves unpleasant people saying grossly offensive things we don’t like and wish they wouldn’t. And yet, if we value free speech at all, it must even extend to the right of Mr Grange to wear a t-shirt that is as witless as it is horrible. I find Mr Grange’s words as unpleasant and nasty as anybody else. I have no desire to defend the wisdom of his choice of attire. I similarly have no desire to suggest any of us should remain silent on exactly what we think of Mr Grange’s t-shirt. I simply believe he should have the right to express his odious thoughts without arrest.

The principle at stake is nothing short of this: the only guarantee I have that the government will permit me to speak freely is that they permit those with whom I deeply disagree, and whose views I find the foulest and most repellent, to speak freely as well. We may all wish the Mr Grange’s of this world would say less (or, at least, choose other clothing) but his right to speak and express himself as he pleases – no matter how vile I may find it – nonetheless guarantees my right to the same.

It may be an offensive Hillsborough t-shirt today – with which I am sure all right minded people would take issue – but it will be something much closer to home tomorrow. Anything that could offend, insult or upset could be next. Any clothing that is not entirely mainstream and any views that are deemed in any way heterodox to conventional wisdom may come under fire. The only guarantee that your views and self-expression will be permissible for the foreseeable future is if we can agree that, despite the gross offence and deeply unpleasant nature of the words, even Mr Grange ought not to be arrested.

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