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Table of Contents

  1. Acknowledgments
  2. Chapter one: Defining the constitution
  3. Chapter two: Parliamentary sovereignty
  4. Chapter three: The rule of law and the separation of powers
  5. Chapter four: The royal prerogative
  6. Chapter five: The House of Commons
  7. Chapter six: The House of Lords
  8. Chapter seven: The electoral system
  9. Chapter eight: Parliamentary privilege
  10. Chapter nine: Constitutional conventions
  11. Chapter ten: Local government
  12. Chapter eleven: Parliamentary sovereignty within the European Union
  13. Chapter twelve: The governance of Scotland and Wales
  14. Chapter thirteen: Substantive grounds of judicial review 1: illegality, irrationality and proportionality
  15. Chapter fourteen: Procedural grounds of judicial review
  16. Chapter fifteen: Challenging governmental decisions: the process
  17. Chapter sixteen: Locus standi
  18. Chapter seventeen: Human rights I: Traditional perspectives
    1. Brutus v Cozens [1972] 2 All ER 1297
    2. Malone v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (No 2) [1979] 2 All ER 620
    3. R v Brown and other appeals [1993] 2 All ER 75
    4. R v Lemon; R v Gay News Ltd [1979] 1 All ER 898
    5. Attorney General v Times Newspapers Ltd [1973] 3 All ER 54
    6. Blackshaw v Lord and another [1983] 2 All ER 311
    7. Malone v Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1979] 2 All ER 620
    8. R v Home Secretary, ex parte Brind [1991] 1 All ER 720; [1991] 1 AC 696
  19. Chapter eighteen: Human rights II: Emergent principles
  20. Chapter nineteen: Human rights III: New substantive grounds of review
  21. Chapter twenty: Human rights IV: The Human Rights Act 1998
  22. Chapter twenty-one: Human rights V: The impact of The Human Rights Act 1998
  23. Chapter twenty-two: Human rights VI: Governmental powers of arrest and detention
  24. Chapter twenty-three: Leaving the European Union

Brutus v Cozens [1972] 2 All ER 1297

LORD REID: My Lords, the charge against the appellant is that on 28 June 1971, during the annual tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, he used insulting behaviour whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned, contrary to s 5 of the Public Order Act 1936, as amended.

While a match was in progress on no 2 court he went on to the court, blew a whistle and threw leaflets around....Then the appellant sat down and had to be forcibly removed by the police. The incident lasted for two or three minutes. This is said to have been insulting behaviour.

It appears that the object of this demonstration was to protest against the apartheid policy of the government of South Africa. But it is not said that that government was insulted. The insult is said to have been offered to or directed at the spectators. The spectators at no 2 court were upset; they made loud shouts, gesticulated and shook their fists and while the appellant was being removed some showed hostility and attempted to strike him. The justices came to the conclusion that the appellant's behaviour was not insulting within the terms of the offence alleged....

On a case stated a Divisional Court ...set aside the judgment of the justices and remitted the case to them to continue the hearing of the case. They certified as a point of law of general public importance:

'Whether conduct which evidences a disrespect for the rights of others so that it is likely to cause their resentment or give rise to protests from them is insulting behaviour within the meaning of s 5 of the Public Order Act 1936'.

Section 5 is in these terms:

Any person who in any public place or at any public meeting (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, shall be guilty of an offence.

Subsequent amendments do not affect the question which we have to consider.

It is not clear to me what precisely is the point of law which we have to decide. The question in the case stated for the opinion of the court is 'Whether, on the above statement of facts, we came to a correct determination and decision in point of law'. This seems to assume that the meaning of the word 'insulting' in s 5 is a matter of law. And the Divisional Court appear to have proceeded on that footing.

In my judgment that is not right. The meaning of an ordinary word of the English language is not a question of law. The proper construction of a statute is a question of law. If the context shows that a word is used in an unusual sense the court will determine in other words what that unusual sense is. But here there is in my opinion no question of the word 'insulting' being used in any unusual sense. It appears to me, for reasons which I shall give later, to be intended to have its ordinary meaning. It is for the tribunal which decides the case to consider, not as law but as fact, whether in the whole circumstances the words of the statute do or do not as a matter of ordinary usage of the English language cover or apply to the facts which have been proved. If it is alleged that the tribunal has reached a wrong decision then there can be a question of law but only of a limited character. The question would normally be whether their decision was unreasonable in the sense that no tribunal acquainted with the ordinary use of language could reasonably reach that decision.

Were it otherwise we should reach an impossible position. When considering the meaning of a word one often goes to a dictionary. There one finds other words set out. And if one wants to pursue the matter and find the meaning of those other words the dictionary will give the meaning of those other words in still further words which often include the word for whose meaning one is searching. No doubt the court could act as a dictionary. It could direct the tribunal to take some word or phrase other than the word in the statute and consider whether that word or phrase applied to or covered the facts proved. But we have been warned time and again not to substitute other words for the words of a statute. And there is very good reason for that. Few words have exact synonyms. The overtones are almost always different. Or the court could frame a definition. But then again the tribunal would be left with words to consider. No doubt a statute may contain a definition which incidentally often creates more problems than it solves but the purpose of a definition is to limit or modify the ordinary meaning of a word and the court is not entitled to do that....

Parliament had to solve the difficult question how far freedom of speech or behaviour must be limited in the general public interest. It would have been going much too far to prohibit all speech or conduct likely to occasion a breach of the peace because determined opponents may not shrink from organising or at least threatening a breach of the peace in order to silence a speaker whose views they detest. Therefore vigorous and it may be distasteful or unmannerly speech or behaviour is permitted so long as it does not go beyond any one of three limits. It must not be threatening. It must not be abusive. It must not be insulting. I see no reason why any of these should be construed as having a specially wide or a specially narrow meaning. They are all limits easily recognisable by the ordinary man. Free speech is not impaired by ruling them out. But before a man can be convicted it must be clearly shown that one or more of them has been disregarded.

We were referred to a number of dictionary meanings of 'insult' such as treating with insolence or contempt or indignity or derision or dishonour or offensive disrespect. Many things otherwise unobjectionable may be said or done in an insulting way. There can be no definition. But an ordinary sensible man knows an insult when he sees or hears it....

If I had to decide, which I do not, whether the appellant's conduct insulted the spectators in this case, I would agree with the justices. The spectators may have been very angry and justly so. The appellant's conduct was deplorable. Probably it ought to be punishable. But I cannot see how it insulted the spectators....