A law that “encroaches on the fundamental right to free speech” should be “changed as quickly as possible”, a Liberal Democrat MP has said.
Julian Huppert, speaking about Section 5 of the Public Order Act, warned the difficulties with the Act, “run to the very heart of how we perceive freedom and rights in this country”.
He said: “The criminalisation of merely ‘insulting’ behaviour in Section 5 means that, theoretically, the use of any words or opinions with which the majority do not agree is an offence.”
Mr Huppert referred to the case of Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang – Christians who were prosecuted under Section 5 after a female Muslim guest complained that she had been offended by the couple’s comments at their hotel.
He also referred to the case of a 16-year-old protester who faced the prospect of a trial for holding a placard outside a Scientology centre saying: “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult.”
Mr Huppert, the MP for Cambridge, said: “Few cases like these lead to successful prosecutions, but if the police can arrest you while you’re out protesting, merely for expressing your own opinions, then we are entering very dangerous territory.”
Mr Huppert was involved in moves in Parliament to improve Section 5 by removing the word “insulting”.
Others, including The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society and civil rights group Liberty support such a change. Earlier this month the Government launched a consultation on the issue.
Mr Huppert concluded: “The current law encroaches on the fundamental right to free speech, it is being used to prosecute those whom it was designed to protect and it is fundamentally illiberal.
“It is shameful that the previous Government took no steps to remedy this. We will not make the same mistake: the law should be changed as quickly as possible.”