FOOTBALL fans who aim homophobic chants at rival supporters or players have been warned they could face prosecution under new guidelines to tackle hooliganism.
Outlining its new policy for football-related offences, the Crown Prosecution Service has pledged to “deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime”.
Although some fans have previously been banned from football for three years for homophobic chanting, this is the first time the offence has been included in a CPS policy document.
Police say its inclusion in the “refreshed” policy is to make homophobic abuse at football matches as “unacceptable” as racism or drink-driving.
Earlier this month, Brighton and Hove Albion fans complained of being subjected to homophobic taunts after the club’s away game with Leeds United at Elland Road.
One fans’ website posted an article headlined “Leeds – the most homophobic fans in England?” after the game and reported that several Brighton fans were abused as they waited for taxis.
In a joint statement with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the CPS warned one of the punishments for abusive chanting, a Football Banning Order (FBO), had a minimum length of three years and would mean offenders missing the Brazil World Cup and Euro 2016.
It said: “We recognise, as do the overwhelming majority of decent fans, that there is a place for humour in football but where the line between humour and offensive behaviour is crossed then positive action will be taken.”
Nick Hawkins, lead sports prosecutor at the CPS, said: “There is no place for criminal behaviour in football grounds and the CPS is clear about how those engaging in violent, abusive or dangerous behaviour at football matches will be dealt with.
“Where there is sufficient evidence to bring offenders before a court on appropriate criminal charges and an FBO is necessary, a prosecution is likely.”
Alice Ashworth from charity Stonewall said that gay fans were put off going to matches because of homophobic chanting.
She said: “We welcome the fact that the new policy on football-related offences addresses homophobic chanting for the first time.
“Stonewall research shows that anti-gay abuse continues to be all too common in football and deters gay fans, as well as many families, from attending matches.
“Most football fans agree that homophobic abuse has no place in the game and the overwhelming majority support the police charging fans for homophobic chanting in the most serious cases.”
Detective Chief Constable Andy Holt of South Yorkshire Police, who is ACPO’s lead on football matters, said he hoped to raise awareness of homophobic abuse after a recent increase at football grounds. “Part and parcel around putting it in the protocol is raising awareness and changing the mindset of supporters. It is a statement from ourselves that it is just not appropriate”.
Football fans who abuse players or fellow supporters online have also been warned they could face prosecution.
Mr Hawkins said: “Our legal guidance on communications sent by social media clearly sets out how we will approach the abuse of players or fellow supporters online.”
New guidance issued by the CPS earlier this year said that communications that included threats of violence or damage to property, specifically targeted individuals, or that may breach a court order should be “prosecuted robustly” if there was enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
Others that were “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” may not reach the criminal threshold.
The new guidance comes after a series of high-profile cases involving Twitter, including threats made against feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy, as well as several female journalists.
Mr Hawkins said authorities also wanted to tackle ‘emerging’ problems such as pitch invasions and the use of flares or fireworks.