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Wanna really insult someone? Log off and yell it in the street - gov

Being rude in Blighty now lawful unless you're on Twitter or Facebook

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It will be legally safe to insult someone on the street - but not online - according to Home Secretary Theresa May.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 was amended by the House of Lords last year to remove the ban on "insulting" language. May announced this week that the coalition government will allow the change to stand.

The law states that it is a crime to use language or put up signs that are "insulting". Free speech advocates have criticised the rules for being far too general and argued that investigating breaches of the act is not a particularly brilliant use of police time.

Officers have used the law to cuff a man holding a placard slagging off Scientology and to collar a student who called a police horse "gay".

In the amended act, the word "insulting" was removed from the line that outlaws "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour". Therefore threats and abusive outbursts remain illegal.

But, here on the internet, the legality of lobbing around insulting language is landing netizens in hot water - and new legislation to deal with rude electronic messages is still on the drawing board. Tweets, Facebook posts, comments and blogs are covered by the Communications Act of 2003, specifically section 127, which allows cops to charge web trolls for spreading "grossly offensive" messages.

It's a law that was largely aimed at stopping people yelling obscenities down the telephone. And it leaves the definition of "grossly offensive" up to police officers and judges.

The Communications Act is undergoing reform to some small degree: Keir Starmer, the UK's Director of Public Prosecutions, revealed his interim guidance on policing social networks in December and asked the public for its views on a new set of rules on what's not acceptable online. The consultation ends in April and can be found here.

Starmer's key point was that judges and the plod need to distinguish between language that genuinely constitutes a threat and opinions that are just offensive or unpopular. ®

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