A strange alliance between gay activists, secularists, evangelicals, Tories and Liberal Democrats is demanding the freedom to insult and be insulted.
A campaign is underway to reform the Public Order Act, to remove a provision, section 5, which makes it an offense if someone:
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
Those campaigning against the provision say:
Section 5 is the legal embodiment of a well-meaning bureaucrat, and at worse it is used as a way of silencing those who the authorities don’t agree with — be they religious preachers, political activists or protesters.
Well-known gay activist Peter Tatchell relates a litany of cases where the section has been used to shut down free speech or mockery or ridicule or dissenting opinion.
When he protested against the Islamist fundamentalist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, in 1994, it was his group’s protest signs deemed “offensive”.
Others arrested under section 5 have included:
A man holding a sign outside Scientology’s London headquarters calling the movement a “cult.”
A Christian street preacher calling homosexuality a “sin.”
An Oxford student who said a police horse was “gay.”
A man who directed what was described as a ‘daft little growl’ť and a ‘woof’ť aimed at two Labrador dogs. He was fined despite the dog owner’s protests.
Anti-seal culling protesters for displaying toy seals colored with red food dye, which ‘distressed’ two passers-by.
Conservative MP David Davis, who jointly launched the campaign against section 5 with Tatchell, says that the previous issuance of guidance to police on section 5 isn’t working and the word ‘insulting’ should be removed. He says:
This would provide proportionate protection to individuals’ right to free speech, whilst continuing to protect people from threatening or abusive speech.
By including the word ‘insulting’ in the legislation we have effectively created a new right to not be offended and risked silencing legitimate campaigners, protestors and activists – but done nothing extra to protect people from unacceptable behaviour.
The British government has consulted on changes to the Public Order Act but hasn’t given an opinion on section 5 yet.
You can get involved with the campaign here.
Picture by Kill Pop
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