LONDON, January 14, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Earlier this evening, Home Secretary Theresa May announced that the government will not contest a decision by the House of Lords to remove wording in the Public Order Act that banned "insulting" speech or signage. The statute has been heavily criticised as a threat to free speech.
May confirmed tonight that the word “insulting” would be removed from Section 5 of the Public Order Act, as part of the Crime and Courts Bill.
The law in its current form reads: “a person is guilty of an offense if he - (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior, or disorderly behavior, or (b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”
Peers had voted in December 150 to 54 in favor of the change. The government announced that the House of Commons will not be asked to vote on that decision, allowing it to stand.
Campaigners have argued for years that the law had to be changed to counter the “chilling effect” on free speech and civil liberties in general.
Simon Calvert, Reform Section 5 campaign director, said he was “very pleased” by the Government’s statement.
“This is a victory for free speech. People of all shades of opinion have suffered at the hands of Section 5," he said.
“By accepting the Lords amendment to reform it the Government has managed to please the widest possible cross-section of society. They have done the right thing and we congratulate them.”
The campaign had been backed by an unusual coalition, including the Christian Institute, National Secular Society, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.
For several years, Christian campaigners have fought against the arrests and threats leveled under Section 5 of the Act and the matter has been become the subject of discussion as far afield as the European Parliament. Incidents have included a long series of arrests of Evangelical street preachers who have quoted bible verses condemning homosexual activity. In most cases the charges, usually brought by police after receiving a single complaint, have been dropped.
In one incident, a street preacher, Anthony Rollins, was awarded £4000 for wrongful arrest. Rollins used the King James Bible in his preaching, expressing his Christian belief that homosexual conduct is morally wrong. He was arrested after a man became upset at the message and called police complaining that Rollins was a “homophobic bigot” and was causing offense.
More recently, the wording in the Act was cited in the arrest of a group of pro-life activists using graphic images of aborted children outside an abortion facility in Brighton. Andrew Stephenson, head of the pro-life campaign group Abort 67, told LifeSiteNews.com in September that “police are creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression in this country” by their indiscriminate use of the Act to suppress freedom of religious and other kinds of expression. Charges were eventually dropped against Abort 67.
Secular critics of the law had pointed to the arrest of a teenager who had called a police horse “gay” to highlight the absurd situations the law had created. Oxford student Sam Brown was arrested and charged under the “insult” law when he asked a mounted police officer, during a night out with friends, “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” Brown was charged with making homophobic remarks, but refused to pay an £80 fine and the Crown Prosecution Service declined to pursue the case.
The popular television and film comedian Rowan Atkinson, famous for his roles as Mr. Bean and Edmund Blackadder, has been campaigning against the wording for some years. In 2009, he urged the House of Lords to drop the “insult” section from the law. In a speech last year at a meeting at Westminster organised by the campaign group Reform Section 5 that the law was being used by police in such cases to prevent citizens from “merely stating an alternative point of view”.