Defend Free speech: Reform Section 5

I wrote a post on this blog a few weeks ago with the title "Feel Free to Insult Me" which is the slogan for those who are campaigning for reform of Section 5 of the Public Order ACt 1986.

In particular, they want the word "insulting" removed from a clause which tries to criminalise "insulting, threatening or abusive behaviour."

Absolutely right. Threatening or abusive behaviour should be illegal, but if the trouble is that the expression of almost any controversial opinion is likely to be found insulting by somebody.

I'd particularly like to endorse this excellent article on Conservative Home by Simon Calvert, who is director of the campaign to reform section 5.

Some of his best points are as follows:

"One ... cornerstone of our society is the right to free speech, which is increasingly being challenged by someone else’s right to not be offended. You don’t have to be a student of law to know that we no more enjoy a right not to be offended than we enjoy a right to watch England win a penalty shootout.

"One piece of well-intentioned legislation that is having, in the words of David Davis MP, “a truly chilling effect on freedom of speech” is Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act. Granted, this obscure provision was never going to attract the same outrage as proposals to detain terror suspects for 90 days without charge, and it probably won’t turn hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets in protest, but it does matter and it must be reformed.

"Section 5 currently outlaws “insulting words or behaviour” but what exactly constitutes an insult is unclear and has resulted in some highly controversial arrests. One boy was arrested under Section 5 for holding a sign which read “Scientology is a cult” and another student found himself in breach of Section 5 when he told a mounted police officer that his horse was gay. On each occasion an arrest was made on the grounds that someone, somewhere, could have been insulted if they heard or saw the offending point of view. There are more troublesome cases, too. The veteran campaigner, Peter Tatchell, was arrested under Section 5 when campaigning against members of the extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir - who called for the killing of gay people, Jews and unchaste women. He was arrested for displaying a placard that cited the murderous actions of Islamist fanatics. Is this what it has come to? Have we reached the point where we need the State to sanitise and vet every discussion?

"The Home Office is currently considering its response to a consultation on whether to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5, leaving just the sensible restrictions on “threatening or abusive” behaviour. The main problem with the word “insulting” is that it actually encourages the police, and sometimes prosecutors, to go after people who are being no more than rude, or even controversial.

"We would all like to see a little less rudeness, but in a democracy an insensitive joke or a contentious point of view should not be a criminal offence.

"The Government has a chance to send a very clear signal that this country is indeed the home of free speech, fair debate and common sense. Reforming Section 5 would unburden the police without limiting their ability to protect and would reassure campaigners without threatening the public. It is that rarest of things for a government, a win-win."
You can read the full article here.


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