The Home Office has today opened a public consultation on public order policing – including whether ‘insulting’ words or behaviour should continue to be a crime.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act outlaws words or types of behaviour that are “threatening, abusive or insulting” and likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.
Civil liberties, secularist and faith groups have long campaigned for removal of the word “insulting” on the grounds that it criminalises free speech.
There have been a number of high profile cases of people being arrested, and even prosecuted, under Section 5 for peaceful expression of beliefs.
In the House of Commons on Monday the Government blocked a debate on an amendment that proposed to delete “insulting” from Section 5.
But MPs did debate the Government’s blocking maneuver, noting the irony that MPs were being denied an opportunity to debate a free speech amendment.
During the debate, the Government promised to consult on the issue. That consultation was launched today by the Home Office.
It will run until 13 January next year, and it will also ask whether police should be given extra powers to tackle disorder in light of the summer riots.
The Minister for Crime and Security, James Brokenshire, said: “We must ensure officers on the ground have all the necessary legal measures available to them to protect our streets and keep the public safe.
“But we must also make sure any new powers do not trample upon traditional British freedoms – that is why we are seeking public views on the powers the police really need to keep our communities safe.”
The Christian Institute, which has been calling for “insulting” to be removed from Section 5, welcomed the consultation.
The Institute’s Simon Calvert said: “I am encouraged that the Government has kept its promise to consult on Section 5.
“We hope this will lead quickly to a conclusion so that the law can be changed in the Protection of Freedoms Bill.
“Free speech is a precious freedom, and there is clearly a problem with Section 5 which needs fixing.”