The removal of ‘insulting’ from Public Order Act is a victory for free speech

This article was written for Left Foot Forward.

Rowan

MPs have confirmed that the word ‘insulting’ will be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

This is a major victory for an unlikely alliance of free speech campaigners including The Christian InstituteThe National Secular Society and Rowan Atkinson.

Last month the home secretary Theresa May announced that the government was ‘not minded to challenge a House of Lords amendment removing the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

In the past Section 5 had been used against street preachers ‘insulting’ homosexuals and LGBT activists ‘insulting’ religious groups.

As Rowan Atkinson commented, “The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult”

This change in law is a victory for freedom of speech in the UK.

There remains, however, an important limiting role for the law to play. That role is to provide protection to those who are victims of threatening or abusive behaviour.

In 2011 I blogged saying that, “We all hold the right to live without fear or intimidation. This has to be legally separated, however, from being ‘insulted”.

The distinction has finally been acknowledged by the government and the change in the law later in the year is now just a formality.

It is worth noting, though, that even with this change in law, the discussion about what constitutes threatening behaviour compared to ‘insulting’ behaviour will remain. There is a considerable grey area around what the law should interpret to be ‘threatening’ and what it should view as merely ‘insulting’.

For example, ‘My Tram Experience’ – a video showing a vile torrent of racist abuse on a south London tram – sparked two very different interpretations.

thought her behaviour was threatening and therefore called for her arrest, while bloggerSunny Hundal argued that she was simply being insulting.

With the change in law however, the police are some way towards having a clear distinction to follow. We are no longer asking them to be the judge of what behaviour is deemed ‘insulting’, at least.

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