Warning on free speech as Peers discuss Section 5

Freedom of speech is being hampered by public order legislation, a Peer warned in the House of Lords on Tuesday.

Lord Dear, a former HM Inspector of Constabulary, made the comments as Peers debated the Protection of Freedoms Bill and the possibility of changing a contentious part of the Public Order Act.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act outlaws words or types of behaviour that are “threatening, abusive or insulting” and likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.


Civil liberties, secularist and faith groups have long campaigned for removal of the word “insulting” on the grounds that it criminalises free speech.

And this week Lord Dear said he also supported removing the word “insulting”.

He described freedom of speech as “one of the most fundamental of all the freedoms that we cherish in this country, and have cherished for a very long time”.


And the Peer commented that the issue of Section 5 is now “the subject of a good deal of debate”.

He said the law has been used in ways “seen by many to be an impediment to the proper exercise of free speech, whether or not one supports the views expressed by some of the defendants in some of the more contentious cases”.

His concerns were shared by the Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, who backed the calls to remove the word “insulting”.

He commented that Section 5 “has sometimes been used against people expressing controversial opinions in the street or elsewhere and it is arguable that it provides too low a threshold for an offence which restricts freedom of expression”.


Last month the Home Office launched a consultation asking whether the word “insulting” should be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

Later in October Liberal Democrat MP Julian Huppert spoke out on Section 5, calling for it to be changed.

Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, and Justice, a civil liberties organisation, have also backed the change.

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