Man visited by police over ‘hate incident’ hails ‘watershed moment for liberty’
14 February 2020, 13:44
The High Court ruled Humberside Police had unlawfully interfered with Harry Miller’s right to freedom of expression.
A man visited at work by police over allegedly “transphobic” tweets has hailed a “watershed moment for liberty” after the High Court ruled Humberside Police unlawfully interfered with his right to freedom of expression.
Former police officer and businessman Harry Miller, 54, who founded the campaign group Fair Cop, said the police’s actions had a “substantial chilling effect” on his right to free speech.
Mr Miller, from Lincolnshire, claims an officer who visited his workplace told him that he had not committed a crime, but that his tweeting was being recorded as a “hate incident”.
The College of Policing’s guidance defines a hate incident as “any non-crime incident which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender”.
Mr Miller had challenged the College of Police guidance as being unlawful because it interferes with freedom of expression, and the Humberside force’s actions in applying the guidance.
In a ruling on Friday, the High Court in London found Humberside Police’s actions were a “disproportionate interference” with Mr Miller’s right to freedom of expression.
Mr Justice Julian Knowles said: “I find the combination of the police visiting the claimant’s place of work, and their subsequent statements in relation to the possibility of prosecution, were a disproportionate interference with the claimant’s right to freedom of expression because of their potential chilling effect.”
The judge added that the effect of the police turning up at Mr Miller’s place of work “because of his political opinions must not be underestimated”.
He continued: “To do so would be to undervalue a cardinal democratic freedom. In this country we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.”
The judge said Mr Miller strongly denies being prejudiced against transgender people, and regards himself as taking part in the “ongoing debate” about reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
Mr Justice Knowles rejected Mr Miller’s wider challenge to the lawfulness of the College of Police guidance, ruling that it “serves legitimate purposes and is not disproportionate”.
But the judge granted a “leapfrog certificate” to allow Mr Miller’s challenge to the guidance to go directly to the Supreme Court, with that court’s permission.
Speaking outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the ruling, Mr Miller said: “Mr Justice Knowles was very clear – we have never had a Gestapo or a Stasi in Great Britain.
“Well, the actions of Humberside Police came way too close for comfort. This is a watershed moment for liberty: the police were wrong to visit my workplace, wrong to ‘check my thinking’.”
Holding a copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, he added: “I’m going to continue tweeting, I’m going to continue campaigning and I’m going to continue standing with women in order to secure their sex-based rights.
“This judgment today has told us that we can do that and, if the police come knocking, say: ‘Miller v Humberside Police, bugger off!'”
His solicitor Paul Conrathe from Sinclairslaw said: “We welcome today’s judgment, which is a vindication of Mr Miller’s actions in posting tweets that were critical of transgender ideology and practice.
“It is a strong warning to local police forces not to interfere with people’s free speech rights on matters of significant controversy.”
In a statement, Humberside Police said: “We accept the judge’s decision today and his findings in the judicial review.
“The mere recording of the incident by Humberside Police as a hate incident has been ruled as not unlawful and in accordance with the College of Policing guidance.
“Our actions in handling the incident were carried out in good faith, but we note the comments of the judge and we will take learning from this incident moving forward.”
Deputy Chief Constable Bernie O’Reilly, executive director at the College of Policing, said: “It is pleasing that today’s judgment found that the College of Policing’s guidance on the recording of non-crime hate incidents is both lawful and extremely important in protecting people.
“Policing’s position is clear – we want everyone to feel able to express opinions as passionately as they wish without breaking the law.”
He added: “Our guidance is about protecting people because of who they are and we know this is an area where people may be reluctant to report things to us because of the very personal nature of what they experience or perceive.
“In policing we don’t always get things right and there will of course be some learning following today’s judgment.”
Comedy writer Graham Linehan, who attended the hearing in support of Mr Miller, told the PA news agency: “I hope that it (the judgment) will make the police be a little more careful about being used as a harassment tool by activists.”
He added: “It’s really, really hard to get the message out … we are not transphobic, we just think that there are some issues that really need to be discussed.”
Mr Linehan – who said he has “had police come to my house, phone me up” because of his public opinions on transgender issues – said the ruling was “just chipping away at the corner of the problems, but is significant”.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Knowles emphasised: “I am not concerned with the merits of the transgender debate. The issues are obviously complex.
“As I observed during the hearing, the legal status and rights of transgender people are a matter for Parliament and not the courts.”