The Public Order Act must be reformed because of its “corrosive” effect on free speech, according to a senior figure at a civil liberties organisation.
Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship, said it was not the role of police officers or magistrates “to protect citizens from insult”, and called on Government ministers to “roll back the culture of offence” in Britain.
“A good start”, he argued, would be removing the word “insulting” from Section 5 – a change backed by organisations including The Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.
A Home Office consultation asking whether the term should be removed has recently closed.
Writing on the Guardian’s website, Mr Harris said: “This law, combined with our culture of offence, means there is the expectation that opinions deemed offensive should be criminalised.
“Our tolerance of the harmless eccentric has waned. The British no longer raise an eyebrow at fringe opinions, but demand the full force of the law.”
He also defended the rights of Christian street preachers as he continued: “it is not the job of local bobbies or magistrates to protect citizens from insult”.
“Christian preachers or mouthy anarchists may irritate, but in an open, free society, robust opinion will insult you: perhaps we all just need to get used to it.”
Currently Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 outlaws words or types of behaviour that are “threatening, abusive or insulting” and likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.
At Westminster, politicians have cited 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 – as a need to change the law.