Comedy star Rowan Atkinson has given his full support to a Christian Institute-led campaign which aims to reform a controversial ‘insults’ law.
Speaking on Tuesday Mr Atkinson cautioned against “a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent” – something he said could be called a “New Intolerance”.
And he warned that criticism, unfavourable comparison or “merely stating an alternative point of view” could be interpreted as an insult and lead to arrest.
Mr Atkinson was speaking at a parliamentary reception for Reform Section 5 which is campaigning to change Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Section 5 currently outlaws “insulting” words or behaviour that may cause alarm or distress to a person, and has resulted in many controversial arrests.
But Rowan Atkinson said: “The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such.
“Criticism is easily construed as insult. Ridicule is easily construed as insult.
“Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult.”
Warning against “The New Intolerance”, he commented: “‘I am not intolerant’, say many people; say many softly spoken, highly-educated, liberal-minded people: ‘I am only intolerant of intolerance’.
“And people tend to nod sagely and say ‘Oh, Wise words, wise words’ and yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds, you realise that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another.
“Which to me doesn’t represent any kind of progress at all.”
Mr Atkinson called for “more speech” to combat the problem: “If we want a robust society, we need more robust dialogue and that must include the right to insult or to offend.
“Because, as someone once said, the freedom to be inoffensive is no freedom at all.”
Mr Atkinson concluded that he gave his “wholehearted” support to the Reform Section 5 campaign which is supported by The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation and others.