Caven blog

The word ‘insulting’ to be removed from Public Order Act

Yesterday, Teresa May, the Home Secretary, confirmed the Government would not seek to overturn an amendment supported by peers in the House of Lords in December 2012, regarding the removal of the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

Section 5 states that: “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” could be deemed a criminal offence. The amendment to the Act was proposed last year by the former chief Constable of the West Midlands, Lord Dear, as part of the Crime and Courts Bill.#

Ahead of the Lords vote, the BBC reported that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, wrote: “We are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as ‘abusive’ as well as ‘insulting’.

“I therefore agree that the word ‘insulting’ could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.”

Mrs May said that, following the DPP’s intervention, ministers would not challenge the Lords amendment.

There has been a vigorous campaign to change the law after suggestions it has been used over-zealously by the authorities.

For example, the Daily Mail reports that in 2008 a teenager was charged for holding a sign outside the London headquarters of the Scientology movement, which labelled it a ‘dangerous cult’. The arrest was justified because Scientologists might find the sentiment expressed insulting.

The coalition against the ‘new intolerance’ included normally dissimilar groups, such as the Christian Institute and National Secular Society as well as Big Brother Watch and The Peter Tatchell Foundation. The campaign was led by the TV comedian, Rowan Atkinson.

The star of the irreverent Blackadder TV series outlined the major argument, saying: “The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.”

However, the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, counters that the line between mere insult and illegal discrimination might not be clear-cut; therefore it is important to make sure vulnerable groups can be protected.

Nevertheless, since there are already laws against matters such as defamation, discrimination and abusive language, it may be argued that there should be some leeway for robust ways in which to express an opinion.

Former shadow home secretary, David Davis, points out that in a free society there should be no right not to be insulted; thus, the best tactic may be to rise above insult when it is offered.

Indeed, the Twentieth century Belgian philosopher, Raoul Vaneigem, offered this sage observation: “Daily life is governed by an economic system in which the production and consumption of insults tends to balance out.”

Original story:

The Daily Mail

BBC

 

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