Harry Miller won an important victory
In August 2020, the barrister Sarah Phillimore mused on Twitter: “my cat really loves Dreamies perhaps he’s a Methodist.” Me neither, but the point is what happened next. As an experiment, a fellow-Tweeter reported the gag to South Yorkshire Police, saying that it displayed anti-Methodist hatred: clearly Phillimore was stigmatising Methodists as “wandering pests that defecate in other people’s gardens”. The police knew just what to do. They decided that Phillimore had committed an NCHI: a “non-crime hate incident”.
Under the police’s “non-crime” guidance, anyone could report you for anything. 120,000 of these “hate incidents” were recorded between 2014 and 2019, an endless litany of — often utterly innocent — words and actions which were now officially classified as hateful. If you were on the list, and a potential employer requested an enhanced DBS check, the police might choose to tell them you were a sort of non-criminal hater. But now, it seems, the NCHI era is ending. This morning the Court of Appeal ruled that the official guidance, drawn up by the College of Policing, unlawfully contravenes the right to free expression.
The legal challenge was brought by a Lincolnshire businessman called Harry Miller, who was visited by police in January 2019 and told that his tweets on the trans debate constituted an NCHI. They had picked on the wrong man. When I spoke to Miller earlier this year, he observed that, as an ex-copper, “the mystique of the police just doesn’t exist for me.” Being an independent businessman also helped: “One of the things the police said to me was, ‘Well, if your place of work knew what you were doing, you could be in trouble with your HR department.’ I said, ‘I am my ****ing HR department!’” He and a friend founded an organisation, Fair Cop, which brought the legal action and has now seen it through to a significant victory.
The Court’s judgment is common sense translated into legal language. It notes that NCHIs, simply by bringing ordinary political debate into the realm of police action, can easily have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech; and that current guidance allows practically anything to be recorded, even if it is ridiculous (the Methodist cat) or a legitimate part of political debate (Harry Miller’s gender polemics). If the category of NCHIs survives, then, it will have to be greatly restricted.
It’s easy to be fatalistic these days; the rules made by corporations and official bureaucracies surround us like high walls. (They keep going up, too: look at the government’s draconian bill against peaceful protesters.) You can look at something like NCHIs and just think “the world is mad, what can anyone do?” But the day Harry Miller decided to start Fair Cop, he pulled a single brick out of the wall. And this morning it collapsed.