The removal of ‘insulting’ from Public Order Act is a victory for free speech

The decision by the House of Lords to pass an amendment removing the word 'insulting' from Section 5 of the Public Order Act is a victory for free speech and should be welcomed.

Steve Hynd is a writer and blogger

MPs have confirmed that the word ‘insulting’ will be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

This is a major victory for an unlikely alliance of free speech campaigners including The Christian InstituteThe National Secular Society and Rowan Atkinson.

Last month the home secretary Theresa May announced that the government was ‘not minded to challenge a House of Lords amendment removing the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

In the past Section 5 had been used against street preachers ‘insulting’ homosexuals and LGBT activists ‘insulting’ religious groups.

As Rowan Atkinson commented, “The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult”

This change in law is a victory for freedom of speech in the UK.

There remains, however, an important limiting role for the law to play. That role is to provide protection to those who are victims of threatening or abusive behaviour.

In 2011 I blogged saying that, “We all hold the right to live without fear or intimidation. This has to be legally separated, however, from being ‘insulted”.

The distinction has finally been acknowledged by the government and the change in the law later in the year is now just a formality.

It is worth noting, though, that even with this change in law, the discussion about what constitutes threatening behaviour compared to ‘insulting’ behaviour will remain. There is a considerable grey area around what the law should interpret to be ‘threatening’ and what it should view as merely ‘insulting’.

For example, ‘My Tram Experience’ – a video showing a vile torrent of racist abuse on a south London tram – sparked two very different interpretations.

thought her behaviour was threatening and therefore called for her arrest, while blogger Sunny Hundal argued that she was simply being insulting.

With the change in law however, the police are some way towards having a clear distinction to follow. We are no longer asking them to be the judge of what behaviour is deemed ‘insulting’, at least.

20 Responses to “The removal of ‘insulting’ from Public Order Act is a victory for free speech”

  1. Simon Whitten

    It’s good news. Hopefully reform of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 will follow. This is the law that enables all the Twitter and Facebook prosecutions for language which is deemed merely offensive and not even necessarily “insulting” as is necessary with Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

  2. Mick

    Well it had to come. An honest Joe like me finding SOMETHING on the Left to agree with. And an issue of common sense too – double bubble. Enjoy this brief flirtation with normality while it lasts, Labour people. It may be years ’til the next time.

    Maybe also we can now be spared the spectacle of the most ‘offended’ persons of all being tip-toed around for diversity. Eh, LABOUR:

    Etc, etc, etc. Even STEPHEN FRY complained about sops to Islam! Especially with up to 62% of Muslims here wanting Sharia Law. And we all know the hell that leads to.

    Though Europe will still be wary of ‘offending’ them:

  3. treborc

    Did they ask 100% of Mulisms about whether they want Sharia law or was it 62% of a 100 as most of these silly votes come from

  4. Eamonn Evans

    The freedom of speech is not an unlimited right – but the freedom to express an opinion is. They are 2 different things. The law should only intervene if an opinion includes a threat of violence or is expressed in a situation where a person has a genuine fear for their personal safety.

  5. Newsbot9

    Yes, it leads to you advocating inequality under the law. Just as you have once again attacked “Labour people” there. Your disdain for anyone not according to your rigid standards of acceptability…

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