A free speech reform backed by The Christian Institute is to become law on 1 February next year.
From that date police will no longer be able to use Section 5 of the Public Order Act to arrest people just because others might find their words or behaviour “insulting”.
The Government agreed to the free speech reform in January, but it has taken until now for them to decide when it will come into force.
Simon Calvert – Campaign Director of the Reform Section 5 group – welcomed the news, but warned about a new anti-social behaviour law which could again threaten free speech.
Under Section 5 one protestor was arrested for calling Scientology a “cult”, someone else arrested for saying “woof” to a dog and another for calling a police horse “gay”.
Several Christians were arrested for peaceful and lawful street preaching, and one Christian couple were put on trial for criticising Islam.
In December last year the House of Lords overwhelmingly supported reforming Section 5, voting 150 to 54 in favour of an amendment to remove the word “insulting”.
In January the Government gave way and agreed to the move, which will now come into place following guidance for police forces on the change.
Supporters of Reform Section 5 included comedian Rowan Atkinson, The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
Simon Calvert, the Campaign Director for Reform Section 5 (RS5), said: “We are delighted that this important change will come into force soon.
“We campaigned for this change because we believe that while insults are rude and we’d like to see fewer of them, the police and courts really don’t need to get involved.
“This campaign was an unusual alliance, but we all agreed that Section 5 needed reforming for the sake of free speech.”
However Mr Calvert warned that under the new Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill sweeping new powers could be a fresh challenge to free speech.
Under Clause 1 of the Bill, ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) would be replaced by Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs).
The law is so broad and the safeguards are so weak that the proposed new law could catch legitimate public protest.
One senior lawyer, Lord Macdonald QC, has warned the proposals are extremely broad and could result in “serious and unforeseeable interferences in individual rights, to the greater public detriment”.