Freedom of speech is one of our most precious civil liberties and we must protect it, a Conservative MP has said as MPs are blocked from debating the issue in Parliament.
Edward Leigh MP made the comments as he warned more and more cases were arising where “legitimate debate” was being silenced by public order law.
Mr Leigh, along with over 60 MPs from across the parties, is supporting a change to Section 5 of the Public Order Act to remove the word “insulting”.
However a procedural device is being used to block debate on the issue and Mr Leigh commented: “It is ironic that MPs should be denied the opportunity to speak about the freedom to speak.”
Mr Leigh, writing on the ConservativeHome blog, said that while freedom of speech is “perhaps, our most precious civil liberty after the right to life itself”, there is a “widely held concern that civil liberties such as freedom of speech are being eroded”.
And he said that although some blame the previous Labour Government, “policing practice” has also contributed to the “erosion of freedoms”.
Mr Leigh explained that “insult” has a low threshold and “is open to misuse”.
He added: “Whatever self-restraint the police exercised in the past in applying the law against insults appears to be melting away.
“No doubt we can blame it on external pressure from activists and internal pressure from out-of-control ‘equality and diversity’ programmes.”
The MP for Gainsborough then noted the example of Christian café owner Jamie Murray. Last month Mr Murray was wrongly told by police that displaying Bible verses on a TV screen was a breach of public order laws.
The police have since offered a partial apology over the incident.
Mr Leigh noted that while freedom of speech “does have its limits”, he cautioned that it is not “legitimate” to “criminalise words or behaviour that are merely insulting in the ordinary meaning of the word”.
He added that if people are “allowed to dial 999 every time they feel insulted, the result is a colossal waste of police time and a dangerous chilling effect on freedom of speech”.
Mr Leigh pointed out that the change in the law he is calling for is backed by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, and groups as varied as Justice, The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.
Home Office minister James Brokenshire has conceded the Government will have to assess the benefits of the amendment.
Mr Leigh commented, “we must trust the Government will be true to its word to consider the merits of the argument. But they must not delay.”
Mr Leigh said the Protection of Freedoms Bill, currently before MPs, is “the ideal vehicle for this amendment”.
“The opportunity must not be missed,” he concluded.