Free speech ‘strangled by law that bans insults’ and is abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors
- Campaigners say Public Order Act is unclear and has resulted in string of controversial arrests
- Groups join forces to have ‘insulting words or behaviour’ phrase removed from legislation
- Former shadow home secretary David Davis: ‘Nobody likes to be insulted, but nor does anyone have a right not to be insulted’
By James Chapman
16 May 2012
Theresa May is being urged to reform a controversial law which bans ‘insulting words or behaviour’ amid mounting evidence that it is strangling free speech.
Campaigners say the Public Order Act is being abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors to arrest Christian street preachers, critics of Scientology, gay rights campaigners and even students making jokes.
Currently, Section 5 of the 1986 Act outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’, but what constitutes ‘insulting’ is unclear and has resulted in a string of controversial arrests.
Human rights campaigners, MPs, faith groups and secular organisations have joined forces to have the ‘insulting words or behaviour’ phrase removed from the legislation, arguing that it restricts freedom of speech and penalises campaigners, protesters and even preachers.
Former shadow home secretary David Davis, a leading campaigner for civil liberties, said reform was ‘vital to protecting freedom of expression in Britain today’.
‘There is a growing list of examples where the law against using “insulting” language has led to heavy-handed action by police and prosecutors. It is not only distressing for the individuals concerned, it constitutes a threat to Britain’s tradition of free speech,’ he said.
‘Of course nobody likes to be insulted, particularly in public, but nor does anyone have a right not to be insulted. Freedom of speech includes the right to criticise, to ridicule and to offend. It is not the job of the police and the courts to prevent us from having our feelings hurt.
‘The solution is simple: The law needs to change. The word “insulting” should be removed from section 5 of the Public Order Act. This would provide proportionate protection to individuals’ right to free speech, while continuing to protect people from threatening or abusive speech.’
A poll by ComRes, commissioned by campaigners, found 62 per cent of MPs believe it should not be the business of Government to outlaw ‘insults’. Only 17 per cent of MPs believe removing the ‘insult’ clause would undermine the ability of the police to protect the public.
In an unlikely alliance, the Christian Institute is joining forces with the National Secular Society to back the campaign, because both organisations are committed to free speech and open debate.
Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute said: ‘Britain’s historic civil liberties were often hammered out amid controversy over freedom to preach without state interference. Christians know first hand why free speech is precious and this is why the Christian Institute is pleased to join people across the political and philosophical spectrum to help bring about this simple but important change.’
Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society said: ‘Secularists, in defending free expression, must ensure that the law is fair to everybody and argue equally for the right of religious and non-religious people to freely criticise and exchange opinions without fear of the law, unless they are inciting violence. Free speech is not free if it is available only to some and not others.’
Others backing the campaign include Big Brother Watch, the Freedom Association and the Peter Tatchell Foundation. Mr Tatchell, a prominent gay rights advocate, said Section 5 was a ‘menace to free speech and the right to protest’. He added: ‘The open exchange of ideas – including unpalatable, even offensive, ideas – is a hallmark of a free and democratic society.’
In October, Home Secretary Mrs May launched a consultation on the Public Order Act, including whether the word ‘insulting’ in Section 5 strikes the right balance between freedom of expression and the right not to be harassed, alarmed or distressed. The consultation closed four months ago, but the Government has yet to set out its views.
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