Tag Archives: insulting

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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I am happy to insult you

Sod off and stop reading my blog. Seriously SOD OFF. Offended? It doesn’t really matter if you are, because I am free to express myself however I see fit as long as it does not intimidate, threaten or harass (for example starting a hate campaign, or victimising an individual). At the moment however, if you felt insulted by me telling you to ‘sod off’ then I would be breaking the law. Specifically, I would be breaking Section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986) which outlaws ‘insulting’ words and behaviour.

This is why I strongly welcome this government’s consultation to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5. The current law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions. This law, as it stands, has been used against Christian streetpreachers who have condemned homosexuality, without them acting in an aggressive or threatening way. What they preach is insulting, but it should not be illegal. Equally it has been used against LGBT activists who have ‘insulted’ religious groups. This position is madness. Freedom of speech is a benchmark of a civilised society. We have to protect it, but we also understand its limitations.

It is right and proper that ‘threatening’ behaviour should be outlawed. We all hold the right to live without fear or intimidation. This has to be legally separated however from being ‘insulted’. On this occasion I am in the strange situation of backing the Christian Institute over the LGBT charity Stonewall.

I am happy to insult and indeed be insulted. So, if you are still reading this, Sod off!

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