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article imageFree Speech in UK: Rowan Atkinson and the right to insult people

By Robert Myles     Oct 29, 2012 in Crime
British actor and comedian, Rowan Atkinson has given his full support to a newly launched campaign aimed at reforming the UK’s controversial insults law. The campaign relates to Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.
On October 16 at a reception in the British Houses of Parliament, Members of Parliament and Peers (members of the House of Lords) gathered to hear Rowan Atkinson lambast the provisions of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 as part of the launch of a campaign, Reformsection5.org.uk.
The campaign has as its target the repeal of a criminal law as it relates to insults and insulting behaviour and has drawn wide support. A diverse spectrum of organisations and individuals from The Christian Society to The National Secular Society, from gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party all contend Section 5 has increasingly been used by UK police as a catch-all provision convenient for silencing those expressing views which others find uncomfortable, or, on occasions, views which the establishment wishes to suppress.
A 'New Intolerance'
The star of Mr Bean and Blackadder warned against “a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent,” – what he termed a “New Intolerance” reports Christian website The Way. He also cautioned that criticism, unfavourable comparison or “merely stating an alternative point of view” could, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act as it presently stood, lead to arrest.
As it currently stands, Section 5(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 reads:
A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, 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.
The troublesome part relates to the inclusion of ‘insulting words’ and sub-clause (b) in its entirety. On its website, Reformsection5.org.uk asks whether it is a function of the state to protect individuals from insult and quotes from the legal textbook “The Law of Public Order and Protest”: “(Section 5) extends the criminal law into areas of annoyance, disturbance and inconvenience. In particular, it covers behaviour which falls short of violence or the threat of violence.”
Reformsection5.org.uk takes the view that an “inconvenience with no threat of violence is not the sort of situation which should warrant the involvement of the police and the courts.” It does not dispute that laws are necessary to protect against defamation, incitement to violence or threats of violence.
Is the law an ass?
In support of their argument for reform, Reformsection5.org.uk highlights some situations where Section 5 has been used resulting in a number of controversial arrests, some examples being:
• The arrest of Kyle Little for a “daft little growl” and a “woof” aimed at two Labrador dogs.
• An Oxford student arrested for saying to a policeman: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?”
• Peter Tatchell and members of the LGBT group Outrage! arrested and charged for shouting slogans and displaying placards that condemned the persecution of LGBT people by Islamic governments. They were campaigning against a rally led by the fundamentalist Muslim group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, who called for the killing of gay people, apostates, Jews and unchaste women. Outrage!’s placards were deemed by police to be insulting and likely to cause distress.
• Animal rights protesters threatened with arrest and seizure of property for objecting to seal culling by displaying toy seals coloured with red food dye. Police told them the toys were deemed distressing by two members of the public.
• A cafe owner arrested for displaying biblical passages on a TV screen
Further examples of how Section 5 has been used to quell protest and put a brake on free speech can be found at Reformsection5.org.uk.
In his address at the launch of the campaign, Rowan Atkinson said, “The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult. Ridicule is easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult.”
He went on to warn against “The New Intolerance” stalking the nation and called for “more speech” to combat the problem and preserve a robust society, part and parcel of which is the right to express views which some may find uncomfortable.
The campaign also has the support of actor and author Stephen Fry, one of the UK’s most popular television presenters, sometimes referred to as a ‘National Treasure.’ With around 5 million Twitter followers, Fry has the ability to tweet to an audience larger in size than many small nations and in support of the campaign tweeted, “Insults aren't nice. But should they be illegal? Support my friends in removing 'insulting' from public order act."
David Davis MP
David Davis MP
Wikimedia Commons - (Photo: Robert Sharp / English PEN)
At the launch, Rowan Atkinson was joined by leading Conservative back bench Member of Parliament, David Davis who said, "The simple truth is that in a free society, there is no right not to be offended. For centuries, freedom of speech has been a vital part of British life, and repealing this law will reinstate that right."
David Davis last week set out his reasons for supporting the Reform Section 5 campaign on the City A.M. business website, saying, “We need to get a grip on this problem now. Twitter and Facebook have shown how a media storm can be unleashed by an outcry from the “Outrage Industry” – those individuals or organisations eager to take offence at even mild criticism. Every day thousands of Brits swap news, ideas and insults online. The last thing we want is the police spending their days checking Twitter for “insulting language” rather than catching real criminals.”
Rowan Atkinson’s speech at the inauguration of Reformsection5.org.uk can be seen below:
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