Prosecutors in England and Wales are being told to take online incidents of “hate speech” as seriously as those committed in person.

New policy memos by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) spell out a new push by the agency to hold people to account for speech that constitutes a “hate crime” by virtue of its “hostility towards the victim’s disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.”

“[W]e will balance the rights of an individual to freedom of speech and expression against the duty of the state to act proportionately in the interests of public safety, to prevent disorder and crime and to protect the rights of others,” reads the memo “Public statement on prosecuting homophobic, biphobic and transphobic hate crime.”

Key to prosecuting such cases, according to the memo, is an intent to “stirring up hatred.”

“Stirring up hatred is committed if a person uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, if he intends thereby to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation,” CPS said in the memo. “Threatening is the key word, and the offence is not committed by words or behaviour that is abusive or insulting. It covers behaviour such as making a speech, posting material online, displaying a poster, performing a play or broadcasting on the media.”

Scotland’s criminal prosecution service, the Crown Office, put similar guidelines in effect in December 2014. CPS handles criminal prosecutions in England and Wales, while the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland handles criminal cases in that jurisdiction.

“Hate crime has a corrosive effect on our society and that is why it is a priority area for the CPS. It can affect entire communities, forcing people to change their way of life and live in fear,” said CPS Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders, according to a CPS news release.

“These documents take account of the current breadth and context of offending to provide prosecutors with the best possible chance of achieving justice for victims,” Ms. Saunders added of the policy memos. “They also let victims and witnesses know what they should expect from us.”

CPS is also taking the occasion to kick off a social media campaign #hatecrimematters, touting the agency’s recent successes in prosecutions and in levying stiff sentences for the same:

We are prosecuting more people than ever before for hate crime. Find out more about what we do: #hatecrimematters

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