The Government said yesterday that it will work with civil liberties groups to “assess the benefits” of amending a law which criminalises the use of insulting words.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act outlaws “insulting” words or behaviour that are likely to cause “distress”. Many groups believe that it intrudes on free speech and has caused police officers to arrest innocent protestors.
Yesterday, Home Office minister James Brokenshire said the Government was committed to assessing whether the law should be re-worded.
In a written answer to David Amess MP, the minister said: “While the Government currently have no plans to bring forward legislative proposals to amend section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, the Government are committed to engaging with key partners across the criminal justice system, community groups and civil liberties groups to assess the benefits of removing ‘insulting’ from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.”
He also said: “The Home Office has supported the Association of Chief Police Officers in updating the legal section of the police’s Manual of Guidance ‘Keeping the Peace’ to ensure that it contains material on section 5 which properly reflects freedom of expression concerns.”
An amendment to repeal the word “insulting” from the Section 5 offence has been signed by over 50 MPs. The amendment was tabled by Edward Leigh MP.
A broad spectrum of groups including Liberty, Justice, the National Secular Society and The Christian Institute are in favour of the move. So too is Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.
However, the Government claims that the police are against changing the law because it may put vulnerable groups at risk of insult.
There have been a number of troubling cases where police officers have unjustly arrested people for using “insulting” words likely to cause “distress” contrary to Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
In 2008 a 16-year-old boy was protesting outside a Scientology centre. He faced a criminal trial because he was holding a sign describing Scientology as a “cult”.
The police relied upon Section 5 of the Public Order Act. The advocacy group, Liberty, took up his case amid widespread criticism of the police.
In 2006 demonstrators in Worcester were protesting against seal culling using toy seals coloured with red food dye.
Police informed them that the toys were deemed distressing by two members of the public.
The demonstrators were threatened with arrest and seizure of property under Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
In December 2009, Christian couple Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang stood trial for “insulting” a Muslim lady during a discussion about religion.
During the discussion the couple said Jesus is the Son of God not a prophet of Islam, and they expressed concern that Islamic dress code for women could be oppressive.
In 2010 a Christian man was arrested in Workington, Cumbria, for answering a Police Community Support Officer’s comments about sexual ethics.
Dale Mcalpine said that the Bible describes homosexual conduct as a sin. His arrest was recorded on a video camera.