The reform of a law which criminalises “insulting” words or behaviour is “vital to protect free speech”, the chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said.
Baroness Onora O’Neill’s comments mean she backs a change that is also supported by The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
Baroness O’Neill warned people are being arrested under the current law for “exercising their fundamental human right to freedom of expression”.
She said: “Limitations on free speech to deal with offences such as incitement to hatred and violence are clearly necessary.
“However, a blanket ban on the use of any insulting words or actions is dangerous because it could criminalise anyone who speaks their mind, regardless of their intention.”
And she commented: “A legal change is vital to protect free speech along with better guidance on equality and human rights, to help police find the right balance between legitimate free speech and taking justifiable action against abusive words or conduct.”
The comments relate to Section 5 of the Public Order Act which currently outlaws “insulting” words or behaviour that may cause alarm or distress.
Last month comedy star Rowan Atkinson also gave his support to a change in the law, cautioning against “a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent”.
He 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.”