Keith Porteous Wood is Executive Director of the National Secular Society. Simon Calvert is Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute. Reform Section 5 is a joint campaign initiative of The National Secular Society and The Christian Institute.
Free speech is a fundamental value in a liberal democracy. Lord Dear’s proposed amendment to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 - due to be voted on in the House of Lords on Wednesday - seeks to uphold, and defend, free speech in the United Kingdom.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it illegal to use “threatening, abusive or insulting” words or behaviour if they are likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”.
The use of ‘threatening’ and ‘abusive’ language is wrong and their criminalisation justified. Both terms clearly denote a satisfactory degree of seriousness to be legislated against. The term ‘insulting’, however, is subjective, open to misinterpretation & abuse and undermines free speech.
An amendment to remove the term ‘insulting’ from Section 5 has been tabled by Crossbench Peer Lord Dear and co-sponsored by Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws (Labour), Lord MacDonald of River Glaven (LibDem) and Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Conservative). Indications are that backbench support for the amendment is overwhelming.
Arguments put forward against the proposed amendment are misguided. In 2009, the Home Office claimed, “if ‘insulting’ is removed from the offence, it is possible that people who mock and verbally torment disabled and other vulnerable people would, in the eyes of the law, be committing no offence. This is simply wrong.