The public order act needs reform: It is an insult to British free speech
25 October 2012 1:00am
DISGRACEFULLY inadequate”. “Jobless scroungers”. This is just a small sample of the insults thrown around yesterday morning. And that was just in the national newspapers. A quick venture onto Twitter would reveal thousands more, many unprintable on these pages.
We might disagree or feel offended. But expressing insults (and being on the receiving end of them) is part and parcel of life in a free society.
Of course, even free speech has its limits. In Britain it has long been illegal to behave in a manner which is threatening, disorderly or which constitutes harassment. That is right. However, the law as it stands – section 5 of the Public Order Act – also bans “insulting” language. That is a step too far.
An insult is in the eye of the beholder. What one person finds offensive another will laugh at or ignore. Who hasn’t, at some point in their lives, offended someone without knowing it or without meaning to?
Worse still, you can be arrested under section 5 for being insulting even if you do not offend anyone. This is a crime that can be committed without a complaint being filed or a victim being identified. The police have only to decide that somebody in the general vicinity could have been offended if they had heard what was said.
This ludicrous degree of latitude has seen a teenager fined for saying “woof” to a dog, a protestor charged for calling Scientology a “cult” and a student spend a night in the cells for calling a horse “gay”.
These stories are almost too daft to believe. That is why they received the media attention and public ridicule which eventually forced the authorities to drop the charges. But for those arrested, such heavy-handed action is a stressful ordeal. And what about those less media-friendly examples which go unnoticed?
Put simply, cracking down on threatening behaviour is a vital duty. Punishing mere insults is a serious restriction on free speech.
Take another example. A Workington street preacher said gay people were sinners. He was arrested and fined £700. Even gay rights activists thought this was over the top. Peter Tatchell described the arrest as “an outrageous assault on civil liberties.” No doubt the preacher annoyed – perhaps even offended – passing shoppers. But in a free country offensive opinions should be challenged or ignored, not criminalised.
So how do we solve this problem? It is simple – remove the word “insulting” from section 5 of the Public Order Act. This campaign has huge support, and not just from MPs of all parties.
Many authors, actors and journalists, who risk a call from the police if they say or write something too controversial, are also on board. Rowan Atkinson and Will Self have backed the campaign. And when Christian groups and the National Secular Society unite to oppose a law, you know that law must be misguided.
We need to get a grip on this problem now. Twitter and Facebook have shown how a media storm can be unleashed by an outcry from the “Outrage Industry” – those individuals or organisations eager to take offence at even mild criticism. Every day thousands of Brits swap news, ideas and insults online. The last thing we want is the police spending their days checking Twitter for “insulting language” rather than catching real criminals.
Some have expressed concern that vulnerable people will receive less protection if the law is changed in this way. They need not worry. Even with the word “insulting” removed, section 5 would still forbid harassment and threatening or disorderly behaviour.
Last October the government launched a consultation on the Public Order Act, including whether the word “insulting” in section 5 strikes a good balance between freedom of expression and the right not to be harassed, alarmed or distressed. They were supposed to have responded by April. We have not heard a word from them.
The best way forward is clear. By removing the word “insulting” from section 5, the government can at a stroke end the confusion and controversy over this law, still protect individuals from genuinely unacceptable behaviour, and stand up for free speech and common sense. Nobody likes being insulted, but we must remember the law is there to protect our safety, not spare our feelings.
David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
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