Pressure on Home Secretary to improve free speech law
Wed, 16 May 2012
The Christian Institute is joining with the National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and others to call for reform of free speech laws.
The new campaign group – Reform Section 5 – wants the word “insulting” to be stripped out of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
Currently, Section 5 of the Act outlaws “insulting words or behaviour”, but what exactly constitutes “insulting” is unclear and has resulted in many controversial police arrests.
In 2008 a sixteen-year old boy was arrested for peacefully holding a placard saying that Scientology “is a dangerous cult.”
A teenager from Newcastle was arrested and fined for saying “woof” to a dog. The prosecution cost the taxpayer £8,000.
A new poll conducted by ComRes shows that 62 per cent of MPs believe it should not be the business of Government to outlaw “insults.”
Only 17 per cent of MPs believe that removing the contentious “insult” clause would undermine the ability of the police to protect the public.
David Davis MP, a strong supporter of civil liberties, is leading a cross-party effort in Parliament to reform the law.
He said: “Freedom of speech includes the right to criticise, to ridicule and to offend.”
He added: “So why can we not simply ask police officers to distinguish between unacceptable behaviour on the one hand, and a legitimate expression of opinion or protest on the other?
“That is what the last government tried to do, without success. They issued guidance to police officers, but this has not prevented the inappropriate use of Section 5.”
Mr Davis says it is time for the law to change: “The word ‘insulting’ should be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
“This would provide proportionate protection to individuals’ right to free speech, whilst continuing to protect people from threatening or abusive speech.”
Simon Calvert of The Christian Institute said: “Churches around the world find themselves in constant friction with aspects of the cultures in which they live, so free speech is vital to us all.
“Britain’s historic civil liberties were often hammered out amidst controversy over freedom to preach without state interference.
“Christians know first hand why free speech is precious and this is why The Christian Institute is pleased to join people across the political and philosophical spectrum to help bring about this simple but important change.
“By bringing together an unlikely alliance of groups, this campaign demonstrates that speaking out plainly for principle, and firm – even energetic – disagreement, are not inconsistent with civil discourse and democracy. Actually they are the lifeblood of it.”
Peter Tatchell, Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation and prominent gay rights advocate, commented that: “section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 is a menace to free speech and the right to protest”.
He added that: “the open exchange of ideas – including unpalatable, even offensive, ideas – is a hallmark of a free and democratic society.”
Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, believes that “freedom of expression should be used responsibly, yet some people only regard as ‘responsible’ that which they don’t regard as offensive or insulting.
“Freedom only to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.
“Secularists, in defending free expression, must ensure that the law is fair to everybody and argue equally for the right of religious and non-religious people to freely criticise and exchange opinions without fear of the law – unless they are inciting violence.
“Free speech is not free if it is available only to some and not others.”