Government consults on removing ‘insulting’ speech from Public Order Act

The Home Office has launched a public consultation asking whether ‘insulting’ words or behaviour should continue to be a crime.

Currently, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 says that “a person is guilty of an offence if he … uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”

The National Secular Society, faith groups and civil liberties groups as well as the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), have long argued that the word “insulting” should be removed from section 5 of the Public Order Act on the grounds that it criminalises free speech.

The law has been used to arrest Christian street preachers who deliver anti-gay sermons, such as Cumbrian preacher Dale McAlpine, who later won £7,000 compensation for wrongful arrest.

There have also been a number of well publicised arrests under the law which have not led to prosecution.

In 2008, City of London police charged a student under the Act for holding a sign outside Scientology’s London headquarters calling the movement a “cult”. In 2006, a student at Oxford University who asked a mounted police officer if he realised his horse was gay during a night out with friends was also arrested under section 5. In both cases, the charges were dropped.

The NSS is also concerned about the use of “insulting” in Section 4A of the Public Order Act.

In March 2010, Harry Taylor was found guilty of “religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress” after he left anti-religious cartoons and other material he had cut from newspapers and magazines in the prayer room of John Lennon airport in Liverpool. Taylor was charged under Part 4A of the Public Order Act after the material was found by the airport chaplain, who said in court that she was “insulted, offended, and alarmed by the cartoons” and so called the police.

In its legislative Scrutiny of the Protection of Freedoms Bill, the Joint (Parliamentary) Human Rights Committee recommended the amendment of the Public Order Act to remove all references to offences based on insulting words or behaviour. Their report stated: “We consider that this would be a human rights enhancing measure and would remove a risk that these provisions may be applied in a manner which is disproportionate and incompatible with the right to freedom of expression, as protected by Article 10 of the [European Convention on Human Rights] and the common law.”

Stephen Evans, Campaigns Manager at the National Secular Society, said: In an open and democratic society such as ours, none of us should have the legal right not to be offended.

“The word “insulting” should be deleted because in the interests of free speech there must be a higher threshold for criminality than “insult”. The law needs an urgent re-examination, so we very much welcome this consultation.”

The consultation is now open and closes on 13 January 2012.

The full consultation document on police powers to promote and maintain public order can be read online here.

You can respond online here.