A debate I’ve been having this last week with both my First and Second Year students has concerned the tension between the rights to free speech and freedom of expression and the right not to suffer discrimination – all of which are protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Can you say and do what you want even if such actions cause offence to another person? Up to a point, yes, but there are limits to freedom of speech and freedom of expression even in a democratic society which highly prizes such important examples of human rights. If you cross the line which divides acceptable from unacceptable behaviour you may well find that you are accused of a public order offence or, more seriously, hate crime.
To some extent, a case heard last week by the Criminal Division of the Sheriff Appeal Court in Edinburgh indirectly touched on some of these issues (see the Appeals of Daniel Ward, Martin Macaulay and Ryan Walker v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow  SAC (Crim) 006).
The appeals were submitted by three men who had attended a European Champions’ League qualifying tie at Celtic Park, Glasgow on 19 July 2017.
Celtic FC, which has a predominantly Roman Catholic fan base, was playing against Linfield from Belfast, a Club which is mainly supported by Protestants in Northern Ireland. The men had worn T shirts with Irish Republican imagery to the match – undoubtedly a provocative gesture on their part.
To say that the potential for sectarian unrest at this fixture was very high would be something of an understatement. There had, in fact, been trouble between the opposing fans at the first leg of the tie in Belfast the week previously.
Proscribed not prescribed
The complaint issued by the Procurator Fiscal against Messrs Ward, Macaulay and Walker was set out in the following terms:
“On 19 July 2017 at Celtic Park Football Stadium, Glasgow G40 3RE you
MARTIN MACAULAY, DANIEL WARD and RYAN WALKER did conduct yourselves in a disorderly manner within said Celtic Park Football Stadium in that you did attend at a regulated football match there whilst wearing a shirt which displayed an image of a figure related to and in support of a prescribed (sic) terrorist organisation namely The Irish Republican Army (IRA) and commit a breach of the peace.“
It is worth highlighting a particular error in the above Complaint issued by Glasgow Procurator Fiscal’s office: there is a very important difference between the words prescribed and proscribed (the correct term which denotes an organisation e.g. a terrorist group which is banned by the State). Whether this error was a typo or ignorance on the part of someone at the Fiscal’s office, I’m unsure.
At the conclusion of their trial at Glasgow Sheriff Court in February 2020, Messrs Ward, Macaulay and Walker were convicted of a breach of the peace.
A large part of the prosecution’s evidence against the trio relied on the testimony of three Police Officers who were on duty at the match. Two of the officers (Constables Stirling and Taylor) served with Police Scotland and the third officer (Constable Nixon) served with the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Now, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the Crown had met the requirement of corroboration – which is a fundamental principle of Scots criminal law. Corroboration is the duty placed on the Crown prosecutor to produce at least two independent sources of evidence which will prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.
The Sheriff at Glasgow certainly thought so as all three officers were able to describe the imagery displayed on the T-shirts worn by the three co-accused i.e. a man with aviator sunglasses wearing a black beret and a camouflage scarf with the Irish tricolour as a background.
Appeal against conviction
The three co-accused appealed on a point of law in terms of Section 160 of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 that the Sheriff had been wrong in his failure to consider their arguments, namely:
1. That the T-shirts did not convey support for a proscribed terrorist organisation (the IRA); and
2. Their behaviour at the football match was not a breach of the peace.
The testimony of each of the officers on the question of the imagery displayed on the T-shirts was highly consistent, but was it safe to say that the value of the evidence presented by each witness should be treated equally?
Alas for the Crown, this is where a major problem emerged. Absolutely no disrespect to the two Scottish Police officers, but they were not in a position to speak with authority on whether the three men by wearing these T shirts were expressing support for a proscribed terrorist organisation.
Significantly, the Sheriff Appeal Court drew specific attention to the decision in Smith v Donnelly 2002 JC 65 which emphasises that “it has been clear beyond doubt that a charge of breach of the peace requires to specify the conduct involved.”
Only Constable Nixon with his direct experience of policing in the febrile environment of Northern Ireland was capable of validating the charges laid out in the complaint. Unfortunately, Constable Nixon’s testimony alone was not sufficient to meet the requirements of corroboration. In a criminal trial, the prosecution case requires certainty not probability.
Reference was made specifically to Lord Kirkwood’s remarks in Fox v HM Advocate 1998 JC 94:
“It is a cardinal principle of our common law that no one can be found guilty of a crime upon the uncorroborated evidence of a single witness, however credible or reliable that witness may be. There must be evidence from at least two separate sources which is capable of establishing the facta probanda beyond reasonable doubt.”
Consequently, the Sheriff Appeal Court quashed the convictions of the three men. This does not mean that the Sheriff Appeal Court is giving the green light to football fans to display such imagery on T shirts and other garments. Far from it: as the judges commented:
“In the particular circumstances which pertained in this case, we would have regarded the wearing of a T-shirt which depicts an image in support of a proscribed organisation, such as the IRA, as so flagrant that the necessary inference could be drawn from it, in the absence of evidence of alarm or annoyance. It is difficult but to conclude that the wearing such T-shirts amounted to a deliberately provocative gesture directed towards the Linfield support. The wearing of such T-shirts in near proximity to the opposing supporters within or around a football stadium is conduct which, if proved, would in our view present as genuinely alarming and disturbing, in context, to any reasonable person.”
Had the prosecution focused on corroborating the element of the charge which emphasised support for a proscribed terrorist organisation, the convictions of the three men might well have been upheld.
Football fans would do well to remember that their right to freedom of expression or freedom of speech could be severely restricted by the Authorities in order to prevent the commission of a crime, such as hate crime or public order offences. If you are still in any doubt, let me point you in the direction of the decision in an earlier appeal judgement of the High Court of Justiciary which reminds us that wearing a T shirt with paramilitary imagery can constitute a breach of the peace (see Maguire v Procurator Fiscal, Glasgow  HCJAC).
A link to the judgement of the Sheriff Appeal Court can be found below:
Copyright Seán J Crossan, 29 November 2020