Public Order Act: repeal bans on insult and distress
Sections 4A and 5 threaten free speech and right to protest
Open to abuse by heavy-handed police and prosecutors
London - 25 July 2011
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has “praised” the proposed parliamentary amendment of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which would repeal the ban on “insulting” words and behaviour.
He described the suggested amendment as "removing an unjustified inhibition on the right to protest and free speech" but he urged MPs to “go further”:
“Both sections 5 and 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 should be amended to repeal the offences of causing ‘insult’ and ‘distress.’ They can restrict freedom of expression and are open to abuse by zealous members of the public and by heavy-handed police and prosecutors,” he said.
A group of MPs is pressing the government to remove the “insult” offence from Section 5 of the Public Order Act during the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Bill: http://tiny.cc/6llpc
Explaining the arguments for repeal, Peter Tatchell writes:
If we accept that causing distress or insult should be a crime, we risk limiting free and open debate and criminalising dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles that some ultra-sensitive and over-zealous people may find offensive and upsetting.
The current law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions.
Campaigns against religious homophobia have resulted in lesbian and gay activists being arrested for causing insult or distress to homophobes and their religious supporters.
Equally, these laws have been used unjustly against Christian street preachers who have merely condemned homosexuality, without being aggressive or threatening. What they said was homophobic and should be challenged but they should not be criminalised.
In order to ensure free speech, remarks and behaviour that are merely insulting and distressing should not be a criminal offence.
Any controversial or dissenting viewpoint has the potential to upset someone and result in them complaining that they felt insulted or distressed.
Causing insult or distress is far too low a threshold for criminalisation. It can inhibit protest and freedom of expression. There is no place for such a law in a democratic society.
Sections 4A and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 have been used to suppress peaceful, legitimate protests by human rights defenders, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) campaigners.
This is what happened to members of the LGBT rights group OutRage! when six of us protested against 6,000 members the Islamist fundamentalist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, outside their mass rally at Wembley Arena in 1994.
They called for the killing of gays, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. They were not arrested but we were. Our crime? We displayed placards that factually condemned Hizb ut-Tahrir’s incitement to murder and also denounced the persecution of LGBT people by Islamists, such as the Iranian regime. It was deemed that these placards were insulting and distressing.
Freedom of expression is one of the most important of all human rights. It should be only restricted in extreme and very limited circumstances. The open exchange of ideas – including unpalatable ideas – is a hallmark of a free and democratic society.
There is no right to be not distressed. Some of the most important ideas in history – such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin – caused great distress in their time.
While bigoted opinions should always be challenged, in most instances only explicit incitements to violence and damaging libels, such as false allegations of tax fraud or child abuse, should be criminalised.