‘Sworn enemies’ unite to fight Section 5 of the Public Order Act

An unlikely collection of groups is urging Theresa May to reform a controversial law - so what is at stake?

Campaigners argue that Section 5 of the Public Order Act restricts free speech. Photo: RexWho should decide whether words, posters or ideas are insulting?

That’s the question that has united a number of groups with vastly different agendas.

From the National Secular Society to the Christian Institute, encompassing Big Brother Watch, gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and senior Tory MP David Davis, the message is one and the same – Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act needs to change.

This disparate bunch have signed up to a campaign, led by Mr Davis, to change the contentious clause. Their slogan? “Feel free to insult me”.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act protects us against threatening or abusive behaviour, unjust discrimination, incitement and violence.

But it also makes it an offence to use words which anyone within earshot might find 'insulting'.


                                [Related story: Home Secretary heckled by police over cuts]


‘Reform Section 5’ campaigners argue the “insulting” language clause of the act has a lack of clarity which has resulted in a string of arrests.

They insist it restricts free speech and penalises campaigners, protesters and even preachers. And crucially the campaign poses this question: does the law really need to protect us from having our feelings hurt?

In 2005 Oxford student Sam Brown was arrested under Section 5 of the act for saying to a policeman: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?”
Gay Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in 2010. Photo: PA
The case was eventually dropped, but Thames Valley Police justified the arrest on the grounds that the 21-year-old had made “homophobic comments that were deemed offensive to people passing by.”

Similarly, Blackpool’s Jamie Murray was threatened by two police officers to stop playing DVDs showing texts from the New Testament in his Christian café.

In 2008 a 16-year old boy was arrested for holding a placard saying that Scientology “is a dangerous cult.” An allegation that the sign was “abusive or insulting” was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Speaking to Yahoo! News, President of the National Secular Society Terry Sanderson: “Insulting people – either deliberately or accidentally – is just a part of human interaction.

“We are working on this campaign with the Christian Institute, which are usually seen as our sworn enemy. We don’t want to see people arrested for saying things like gays are evil. This is a common cause and we want to be very careful not to make it partisan.

“After all, free speech is not free if it is available only to some and not others.”

A recent ComRes poll commissioned by the Reform Section 5 campaign shows that the majority of MPs in each Coalition party support the removal of the “insult” clause.

It showed 62% of MPs believed 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.

After the London Riots, a consultation was launched to better understand the effect of the word ‘insulting’ and whether it is consistent with the right to freedom of expression and the risks that would ensue if the clause was removed from Section 5.

The Home Office closed the consultation process in January of this year but is yet to set out its views. Home Secretary Theresa May is being urged to make the reforms.

Oxford University student Sam Brown who was arrested after calling a police horse 'gay'. Photo: PADavid Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary, who is leading the cross-party calls for reform, says the campaign is “vital to protecting freedom of expression in Britain today.”

He said: “Who should decide who is insulted? The police? A judge?  The truth is that Section 5 is having a terrible, chilling effect on democracy today.”

In a statement released today, ‘Reform Section 5’ said: “It’s no laughing matter. Imagine what it feels like to be hauled up in front of a policeman, questioned as a criminal or even arrested and dragged to court for speaking your mind or for inadvertently insulting someone.

“The law rightly protects us against unjust discrimination, incitement and violence. It should not be used to protect us from having our feelings hurt.”

Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute added: “By bringing together an unlikely alliance of groups, this campaign demonstrates that speaking out plainly for principle, and firm, even energetic, disagreement, are not inconsistent with civil discourse and democracy - actually they are the lifeblood of it.”

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