Christian Institute leads new campaign for free speech
But Britain’s Chief Police Officers oppose the proposed reforms
A diverse group of organisations, all committed to what they referred to as Britain’s strong tradition of 'robust free speech', sunk their huge differences on other issues at a meeting on Tuesday (16 May) in the House of Commons to urge the Home Secretary to remove the references to ‘insulting words and behaviour’ in Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Chairman of the meeting, Rt Hon David Davies MP, referred to recent attempts by MPs to remove the words, which he said ‘criminalised free speech’. A recent survey by ComRes of MPs found that 62% wanted Section 5 changed to remove these words. Despite assurances from Home Office Minister James Brokenshire that the Home Secretary supported the reform, a proposed amendment to a paragraph in the new Criminal Justice Bill was not given Parliamentary time to debate and vote on the amendment.
He went on to explain that the 1986 Public Order Act was passed following the violence in the miner’s strike, but that the part relating to ‘using insulting words’ had had "a chilling effect on freedom of speech in this country". Section 5, he said, had been used over 18,000 times by police last year, but with very few people being charged and hardly any convicted.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the Christian Institute, had been appointed by the consent of all the various groups as the Campaign Director of the new group, to be known as ‘Reform the Public Order Act’. He rejoiced in a variety of organisations "making common cause for the common good" and cited numerous examples of ‘victims of Section 5’, including a man arrested for asking a police officer if his horse was ‘gay’, another fined £200 for saying 'woof' to a labrador (overturned on appeal!) and numerous Christian preachers arrested for quoting Bible verses or handing out tracts.
He was followed by gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who said that he and fellow homosexuals did not think Christians should be criminalised for articulating views in the Bible, such as saying that homosexual relations were sinful. "People may find their views ridiculous or even offensive in today’s word", he said, "but they should not be arrested, charged and convicted for expressing that view".
He added that there were ‘extremely compelling reasons’ for repealing part of Section 5, and noted that today’s struggle to overturn the ‘insulting words’ provision "was part of the long struggle in this land for freedom of speech". Tacthell emphasised that as the law stood, it did not even require intention to insult; the crime was made out merely if anyone who might feel insulted was ‘likely to be caused alarm, harassment or distress’. He had himself been arrested in 1994 and put in a police cell for hours for holding up a placard at an extremist Islamist rally by Hizb-ut-Tahrir, on which he had stated his opposition to laws in Muslim countries which made ‘offences’ such homosexuality, apostasy and female adultery punishable by execution.
Keith Porteous-Wood, President of the National Secular Society, noted that repealing the ‘insulting words’ provision did not mean a licence to say anything; there were still laws about incitement to violence, racial hatred and of course defamation laws. "We sometimes need to speak uncomfortable truths to those in power", he said, adding that the main problem now was ‘self-censorship’ – freedom of expression "was becoming more and more restricted and people won’t speak their mind any more for fear of the consequences".
Edward Leigh MP, a key campaigner for freedom of speech in the Commons, described the meeting as ‘a joyous and eclectic occasion' and quoted Voltaire’s dictum: "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it".
David Davies made reference to the sinister role of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) in persuading the government to keep the ‘insulting words’ provision. They had also refused to appear on radio and TV debates on the day of the meeting, and on other occasions, to defend their anti-free-speech position. "ACPO are leading the attempt to keep this oppressive law", he said.
The Campaign invites believers in free speech to make their concerns known to Home Secretary Theresa May and to their MPs.
David Davies, interviewed afterwards for TV, said: "Parliament must change this law if Home Office bureaucrats won't do it".
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From what I head you can be prosecuted for "insulting behaviour" without you or the "insulted" knowing you have or thinking it "insulting".
Typical potty nanny state law that needs removing from statute.
Good luck Tony you you and all that speak out in the name of sense!
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'The Campaign invites believers in free speech to make their concerns known to Home Secretary Theresa May and to their MPs.
David Davies, interviewed afterwards for TV, said: "Parliament must change this law if Home Office bureaucrats won't do it".'
Oh dear, Theresa's having a bad day already. The police have made themselves pretty clear to her today.
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