Pressure is building in favour of reform of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’. Today, an amendment will be put forward in the House of Lords which proposes that the word ‘insulting’ should be removed from the Act, and the government is expected to look into the issue over the summer recess. This follows a recent Home Office consultation on Section 5, which received a large number of responses in favour of reform. The Deputy Prime Minister already backs reform, and according to a recent poll, 62% of MPs believe that the law should not include a ban on insults.
Reform of Section 5 is long overdue. It has resulted in some well-known absurd arrests and prosecutions, such as a fine issued to a man who growled and said ‘woof’ to two Labrador dogs. It has been used in a way which has worrying implications for freedom of speech: in 2008 a 16-year-old boy was detained for holding a placard which described Scientology as a ‘dangerous cult’, and an atheist pensioner in Lincolnshire was recently warned by the police for displaying a poster in his window which stated that ‘religions are fairy stories for adults’.
It is the clause of Section 5 which outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’ in a way which is likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’, which has enabled cases like these to take place, and which has a chilling effect on freedom of speech. The word ‘insulting’ is vague and wide-ranging : an opinion which one person considers to be valid criticism could be regarded by someone else as an insult, and any opinion which is unpopular or unusual is likely to cause ‘offence’ or ‘insult’ to someone. Another oppressive feature of this law is that the police and the courts reserve the right to decide whether your actions constitute ‘insulting behaviour’: you could be convicted on the say-so of a police officer of judge, regardless of whether anyone has actually been insulted by your actions.
The issue of maintaining freedom of speech in the face of accusations of ‘insult’ is one which atheists, humanists and secularists are familiar with. Members of religious groups often demand that legitimate debate about their beliefs should be shut down in order to avoid causing ‘offence’. However, many religious groups are also opposed to Section 5, on the grounds that it could stop them from expressing their own controversial opinions. For example, some religious groups have bigoted views on homosexuality. While these views are certainly unpleasant, finding your opponent’s views distasteful is not a valid justification for banning them, or for cracking down on those who express them. To uphold freedom of speech for everyone, atheist and religious, Section 5 must be reformed now.