Sarah J spoke with Simon Calvert from Reform Section 5

Protecting Free Speech

The Government was under mounting pressure last week to axe a controversial law which limits free speech, following a debate in the House of Lords.

The legislation, Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, criminalises people who are deemed to have used "insulting words, or behaviour". Examples include a student who told a police officer his horse looked gay, a teenager carrying a sign which read "Scientology is a dangerous cult" and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell for holding a placard denouncing Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The law has been criticised by free speech campaigners, MPs and human rights activists for having a "chilling effect on free speech". A recent ComRes poll commissioned by the Reform Section 5 campaign showed that 62% of MPs believe it should not be the business of government to outlaw "insults."

Sarah J spoke with Simon Calvert, the Campaign Director for Reform Section 5 Campaign to find out more.

Sarah J: What is the campaign all about?

Simon: The campaign aims to remove the concept of insults from Section 5 of the public order act. Section 5 is one of those pieces of law that was well intentioned, but it's becoming misused. If you ever come across a case in the news of a mission street preacher who's been arrested for preaching ordinary Christian sexual ethics; or somebody whose been arrested for saying something which you know is slightly controversial, it's usually Section 5 that's the villain of the peace. It's especially this idea of having insult in it that causes the problem.

If you ask most people, did you know that the criminal law actually outlaws insult, they're amazed and yet Section 5 does. A lot of people think it should be changed. When I say a lot of people, I mean a very wide section of people. We've been delighted in this campaign to have been having the Christian Institute alongside the National Secular Society, alongside Peter Tatchell, and politicians from across the political spectrum. There's a very wide spectrum of support for reforming this law.

Sarah J: You've also had support from Lord MacDonald who is the former Director of Public Prosecutions?

Simon: That's right, yes. He spoke out making very plain his strong support for reforming Section 5. When the former Director of Public Prosecutions says that a law needs changing, you'd hope that the Government would listen. He's also joined by Lord Deer who is the former Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary. Again if you have a very senior policeman like that saying that this law needs looking at, then it suggests that there really is a very strong case. We hope that the Home Office will look very sympathetically at the argument. They have already held a consultation on whether to make this change and we get the impression that large numbers of members of the public responded urging them to strip insults out of Section 5.

Sarah J: Is the debate because it infringes on free speech?

Simon: Yes, let's just be clear, none of us approves of insults and we all wish there were less of them in public life; but the problem is the word insults and the concept of it is just too subjective. People can feel insulted for all sorts of reasons. People feel insulted when you disagree with them. They feel insulted if you express certain points of view. They can feel insulted over very silly things.

The way this law works is that if somebody complains to the police and says so and so has just said something that I find insulting and I was alarmed by it, what they have just done by saying that is they've made out perfectly the offence created by Section 5. The policeman who might really just want to say to them, you know don't be silly it's just a disagreement, he can't, because he knows that on the face of it, what's been spoken about sounds like it's a criminal offence under Section 5. You've got to feel sorry for the police really. They come in for a lot of criticism for pursuing some of these cases under Section 5; but at the same time so long as Section 5 is on the statute book, they're going to feel under pressure to deal with these claims. If you can trim back Section 5 a bit, you not only benefit freedom of speech, you probably also save police time.

Sarah J: And ultimately that's about saving money for the nation.

Simon: Indeed. Police have far better things to do than to handle complaints from people who say, oh I feel insulted because someone just expressed this point of view or that point of view. They have much more important things to deal with and I think that they would feel relieved if they didn't have to deal with insults under Section 5.

Sarah J: I'm guessing that in terms of verbal abusive behaviour towards people, that there's other legislation in the law that would mean that can still be prosecuted even if insults were taken out of Section 5?

Simon: You've put your finger right on it. Section 5 covers threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour and you can see how that is like a descending scale of seriousness. Threatening is obviously very serious; it makes people feel at risk of physical harm. Abusive, again that's serious. We all know what that means. It means swearing and aggressive things, but insulting is the lowest rung of the ladder; the least serious. That's why we have to trim that bottom rung of the ladder off, but still leave in place the law which deals with abuse and threats.

In addition to Section 5, there's Section 4A, which is intentionally causing harassment; there's the Protection from Harassment Act; there's the law in Breach of the Peace; of Public Nuisance. There are plenty of other provisions which the police can give to protect the public without needing to resort to this over broad, blunder bust law that is the wording of Section 5.

Sarah J: If people wanted to stand with you in this, how can they do that?

Simon: If they go onto then they'll find everything they need to know about the issue, and there's a handy little form on there for sending a message to the Home Secretary. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.