Reform the UK Public Order Act

Posted: May 16, 2012 in Freedom of Speech


 I don’t always agree with Peter Tatchell, veteran British human rights (and gay rights) campaigner. But I agree with him on this. He and a wide range of people/groups from different political perspectives are trying to get the UK government to reform the UK Public Order Act. Peter’s press release says:

Section 5 threatens free speech & the right to protest 

London – 16 May 2012

David Davis MP leads cross-party calls for reform

Secularists, faith groups and human rights campaigners unite in support

Where: Committee Room 5, Palace of Westminster
When: 11.15am, Wednesday 16th May
Who:David Davis MP
Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner
Edward Leigh MP
Simon Calvert, Christian Institute
Keith Porteous Wood, National Secular Society

Today’s launch of the Reform Section 5 campaign will increase the pressure on Home Secretary Theresa May to amend the 1986 Public Order Act.

Section 5 of the Act outlaws “insulting words or behaviour.” What constitutes “insulting” is unclear and has resulted in many controversial arrests and prosecutions. Civil liberties campaigns, faith groups and secular organisations have joined forces to have the word “insulting” removed from the legislation on the grounds that it restricts free speech and penalises campaigners, protesters and even preachers.

The Reform Section 5 campaign is headlining with the slogan: “Feel free to insult me”, and asks the vital question: “Who should decide whether words, posters or ideas are insulting?”

The campaign points out that the law rightly protects the public against discrimination, harassment, threats and violence – but that it has no legitimate role protecting us from having our feelings hurt.Peter Tatchell, Director of the human rights lobby, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, said: “Despite my well known disagreements with David Davis and the Christian Institute, in defence of free speech and the right to protest we’ve sunk our differences and are working together to reform Section 5. Freedom of expression is so important. It transcends party politics and ideology.

“It is commendable that David Davis and the Christian Institute are prepared to work with a gay left-wing Green atheist and secularist like me. We’re all putting the right to free speech before our personal politics and beliefs.

“I have been a victim of Section 5. In 1994, I organised a small peaceful protest against the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, some of whose members had endorsed the killing of Jews, homosexuals, apostates and women who have sex outside of marriage. I displayed placards that factually documented the persecution of gay people by Islamist fanatics. I was arrested and charged under Section 5 with behaviour that was deemed insulting and likely to cause distress. I fought the charges and eventually won, but not before spending many hours in police cells and standing trial.

“This experience convinced me that Section 5 is open to abuse by over-zealous police and prosecutors. That’s why I am supporting the Reform Section 5 campaign. The campaign brings together an unlikely alliance of people who would otherwise be political foes. Both my own Peter Tatchell Foundation and the National Secular Society have been traditionally at loggerheads with the Christian Institute over its opposition to gay equality and its defence of religious privilege. But on this issue we agree.

“The Section 5 ban on insults is a menace to liberty. It has been abused to variously arrest or threaten with arrest people protesting non-violently against abortion and for gay equality and animal welfare. Other victims include Christian street preachers, critics of Scientology and even students making jokes.

“In 2008, a teenager was given a court summons for holding a placard that denounced Scientology as a dangerous cult. Three years earlier, an Oxford student was arrested for jokingly suggesting that a police horse was gay. In both cases, even though the charges were later dropped, the victims had their freedom of expression infringed and they suffered public humiliation by the police.

“Section 5 has been also used unjustly against Christian street preachers who have merely condemned homosexuality, without being abusive or threatening. Although what they said was homophobic and should be challenged, they should not have been criminalised. Dale McAlpine was arrested in 2010 for saying that gay sex is sinful. In my view, Dale is a homophobe but he should not have been prosecuted. On free speech grounds, I offered to testify in his defence.

“Under Section 5, is it an offence for a person to use “insulting words or behaviour” in a way that is “likely” to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.” There is no requirement to prove that anyone has been harassed, alarmed or distressed. The mere likelihood is sufficient to secure a conviction. Moreover, an offence is committed regardless of the person’s intention. Innocently intended words, behaviours or signs can result in a criminal record. The police and the courts can decide if you or someone else mightfeel insulted.

“When does an insult cease to be a legitimate (if bad mannered) expression of opinion and become a matter for arrest and prosecution? Much satirical comedy and many polemical critiques of religion are deemed insults by some people.

“What constitutes an insult is a subjective judgment, open to widely different interpretations. For some ultra-sensitive people, what others regard as valid criticisms may cause them to feel insulted and distressed. Indeed, any controversial or dissenting viewpoint has the potential to upset someone and result in them – or the police – deciding that they feel insulted and distressed.

“If we accept that insults resulting in likely alarm or distress should be a crime, we risk limiting free and open debate and criminalising dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles that some people may find offensive and upsetting. The right to mock, ridicule and satirise ideas, opinions and institutions is put in jeopardy. Section 5 can, in theory, be used to criminalise almost any words, actions or images, if even just one person is likely to be alarmed or distressed by them.

“There is no right to be not distressed or offended. Some of the most important ideas in history – such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin – caused great offence and distress in their time.

“Do we really need the police and the courts to criminalise insults? Should we not just accept that the risk of insult is a fair price to pay for living in a society which respects free speech?

The law rightly protects us against discrimination, harassment and incitement to violence. It should not be used to protect us from mere insults. It’s time to reform Section 5,” said Mr Tatchell.

ComRes poll: Nearly two-thirds of MPs back Section 5 reform 

A recent ComRes poll commissioned by the Reform Section 5 campaign shows that 62% of MPs believe it should not be the business of government to outlaw “insults.” Only 17% of MPs believe that removing the contentious “insult” clause would undermine the ability of the police to protect the public. Furthermore, only 1 in 5 MPs believe that reform would put minorities at risk and the majority of MPs in each Coalition party support the removal of the “insult” clause.

For further information:

Reform Section 5 campaign website:

Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation

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