The government says it will “assess the benefits” of removing the crime of causing ‘insult’ from the Public Order Act, reports Jessica Green on the UK’s Pink News service. The law has been used to prosecute street preachers who persist in delivering anti-gay sermons in public, although some campaigners – including Peter Tatchell – say it should not be illegal to insult people.
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.”
In December, homophobic preacher Dale McAlpine, of Cumbria, won £7,000 compensation for wrongful arrest after he was charged with making ‘threatening, abusive or insulting’ remarks.
On Tuesday, Home Office minister James Brokenshire responded to a question from Tory MP David Amess on whether the Home Secretary would bring forward legislative proposals to amend the law through the Protection of Freedoms Bill. A number of MPs have backed the move.
Mr Brokenshire said: “While the government currently have no plans to bring forward legislative proposals to amend section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, the government are committed to engaging with key partners across the criminal justice system, community groups and civil liberties groups to assess the benefits of removing ‘insulting’ from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.”
While a number of groups – including Liberty and the National Secular Society – support the proposals to change the law, gay rights charity Stonewall is opposed and says it will contest any attempts to change the law.
Ruth Hunt, Stonewall’s director of public affairs, said: “We believe that the law is currently settled in the right place balancing freedom of expression with people’s right to live free from abuse which can be hugely intimidating. We will continue to express this view firmly to ministers.
“This issue was not raised formally at committee stage and we will certainly resist any attempt by veteran opponents of equality to introduce it at a late stage in the bill’s passage.
But veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell expressed “full support” for the proposed reform, describing it as “the removal of an inhibition on free speech”, Mr Tatchell, who has called for the law to be repealed before, said MPs should go further and remove the offences of causing insult and distress. “If we accept that causing distress or insult is a crime, we risk closing down free and open debate and criminalising all manner of dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles,” he said.
“This law can be abused to criminalise almost any words or actions. Campaigns against religious homophobia have many times resulted in LGBT activists being arrested for causing insult or distress to homophobes and their religious supporters.”
Yet there is a very real fear that if this change is granted, it will only be the tip of the iceberg and more protections will be chipped away.