If one shouts at another as they pass "shame on you" "traitor" "how do you sleep at night"? Shouldn't these be protected expressions of perfectly reasonable antipathy based on one's moral appraisal of their conduct that should be safeguarded in a democratic society?

But they seem to also inherently be intended to make one grapple with the fact that others view their character as dishonourable, which could be said to be intended to inflict a degree of alarm or distress.

Do the words in the statute refer only to more significant forms of alarm like alarm at their physical safety? If it is only intended to encompass more severe forms then how do we know this? If not then can someone not stifle and limit another's expression simply by making widely known that they find another's political views alarming and distressing and then just being present? How is that reasonable?

Ultimately how are these two items defined?

1 Answer 1


Conversely why shouldn't someone be free to go about their lawful business without being alarmed or distressed?

The law is intended to balance such freedoms, rights and responsibilities.

Alarm and distress have the common meaning in UK English:

to alarm - to frighten, disturb, make someone feel in danger

to distress - to cause anxiety, sorrow, pain, upset

The prosecution must prove intent and that there was a significant effect on someone; that someone was actually alarmed and/or distressed.

The defendant may argue their behaviour was reasonable - s4A(3)(b) - and/or an exercise of their right to freedom of expression in the Human Rights Act 1998.

Examples of circumstances that make the alleged offence more serious and more likely to be prosecuted: targeting someone on their own, targeting a vulnerable person or someone accompanying vulnerable people (e.g. children), targeting them with sustained abuse, targeting them in a dark alley, targeting someone who cannot get away (e.g. in a moving bus or train carriage), targeting someone with whom one has a 'history', having a significant effect, having a long-lasting effect.

At the other end of the spectrum, i.e. less serious and less likely / unlikely to be prosecuted: shouting at someone on the other side of the street while walking away in the opposite direction.



  • I think if Hillary Clinton starts getting ahead in the election polls, it could certainly make Donald trump feel alarmed and distressed. If a shop's security merely says "excuse me" to a shoplifter while he's in the midst of an act that could make them feel alarmed and distressed. A politician being heckled could feel alarmed or distressed. An American Idol contestant being ridiculed and disqualified by Simon cowel could easily be made alarmed or distressed. Jun 29, 2022 at 15:08
  • But have any of those parties done anything wrong? Jun 29, 2022 at 15:08
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    @JosephP. The first scenario isn't in the E&W jurisdiction and if it were it doesn't meet the elements of the offence. The shop security's conduct is obviously "reasonable." Heckling is OK, the politician is expected to put up with heckling (broadly speaking, but see the case of James Goddard and Anna Soubry). The American Idol contestant isn't in the E&W jursidiction - the Britain's Got Talent contestant's complaint wouldn't be prosecuted because of the circumstances. You may also be interested in Harvey v DPP.
    – Lag
    Jun 29, 2022 at 15:19
  • 1
    You're awesome. Jun 29, 2022 at 16:16

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