It is an offence, punishable with up to six months' imprisonment and/or a fine, to use towards another person threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour. It is a similar offence to distribute or display anything that is threatening, abusive, or insulting. In both cases it must be proved either that the accused person had the specific intent (see intoxication) to cause the other person to believe that immediate unlawful violence would be used against him or, simply, that the threatened person was likely to believe that violence would be used against him. A constable may arrest without warrant anyone he reasonably suspects is committing either of these offences.
It is also an offence, punishable with a fine, to use threatening or disorderly behaviour, or to display anything that is threatening, abusive, or insulting, within the hearing or sight of anyone likely to be harassed, alarmed, or distressed by it. Here, it is a defence if the accused person proves (see burden of proof) either that he had no reason to believe that there was anyone within hearing or sight who was likely to be harassed, alarmed, or distressed, or that he was inside a dwelling (any living accommodation, including a hotel bedroom) and had no reason to believe that the behaviour or display would be heard or seen by someone outside, or that his conduct was reasonable. A constable may arrest without warrant anyone he reasonably suspects of committing this offence if, after warning him to stop, the person repeats the offence.
All these offences were introduced by the Public Order Act 1986 to replace similar offences; they may be committed in private as well as public places unless the behaviour or display took place inside a dwelling. A further offence of intentionally causing harassment (primarily aimed at racial harassment) was introduced by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; it is punishable by a fine and/or six months' imprisonment. See also racial hatred; racist abuse; stalking; violent disorder.