Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

Can I just put in my usual disclaimer. these views are entirely my own and I do not purport to represent any organisation, even those of which I might be a member.

Back in my lost youth Government introduced the Litter Act.  Litter was becoming a problem but it was never the intention to fill the jails with people who had dropped a sweet wrapper. Seat belt legislation was never intended to fill the jails with people who had forgotten to put on a seat belt. Similarly it was never the intention of the proposals to ban parents smacking their children to fill the jails with stressed out parents.

The point of all of this legislation was to try to effect a social attitude change.and to change public behaviour so that there was a consciousness among people that acceptable behaviour had changed, and that they should seriously consider and modify their conduct. It wasn't to criminalise people. It was to send out a signal of a broad societal change and back it up with penalties for the sake of society and which would only be imposed if the signal was ignored.

In the case of the OBFA it's beyond doubt that there is offensive behaviour at football matches which doesn't occur in most other sports, so to that extent the specificity of the Act could be justified. It's not impossible but it's difficult to defend the right to be offensive. I suppose there are issues of free speech but I think we're grasping at straws with that defence so I won't try. Offensive baviour at football is a stain on the fabric of our society but half a dozen police were never going to be able to jail 3 or 4 thousand chanting football fans so I think the act is best viewed, like the others I've mentioned, as a signal that a specific problem exists and needs to be addressed. It should be an indicator to young fans that the ancient bigotries of their elders, who want to be sure that their bigotries live on after them, has to change. The object of the act isn't to jail people, it's to make them conscious that society has moved on and certain things which were acceptable are no longer so. The object is to stop people being gratuitously offensive and I can't see how that is a bad thing.

There are however questions around how the act is policed. There is a mis-trust of the police, not always unjustified, among certain sections of our community and over enthusiastic policing only makes it worse. The real answer to that is that people shouldn't indulge in offensive behaviour and should get as far away as possible from people who do.

I know that there is very little in the OBFA that isn't addressed elsewhere in law by breach of the peace or other public order legislation but they lack the specificity to deal with this specific problem and send this specific signal.

But one thing is certain in my mind. If I'm right and the act should be treated as sending a signal then repeal of the act sends a much worse signal to our whole society.  Amend it by all means so that the offence is much clearer and people know where the boundaries are, but don't repeal it unless you can replace it. 

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