The government is considering removing the crime of causing ‘insult’ from the Public Order Act 1986. It 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.’ We ask: Should insulting someone be a criminal offence?
Yes – Sam Dick, head of policy at Stonewall
‘You only need to see some of the hundreds of emails and letters we receive every week at Stonewall (and I get more than my fair share because of my surname) to realise that the law isn’t holding people back from expressing strong views about the “sin” of homosexuality. And nor should it. We’re clear that people should be free to express strong points of view about homosexuality without being charged.
‘But there is a big difference between temperately expressing strident points of view and making people fear for their safety. The ‘gay-free zone’ stickers around Tower Hamlets last year are just one example of the low-level but intimidating materials that should be policed. Mohammed Hasnath was convicted and fined £100 under Section % of the act for distributing those stickers. We welcomed that conviction. His stickers weren’t an example of someone innocuously expressing his views, but an intimidating message directed at the large local gay community.
‘Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that the police sometimes get it wrong and can be disproportionate- but this is the case with the most offences. We work directly with police forces, and we’ve learned that the problem isn’t the language used in legislation. What hinders the police most is a lack of clear guidance on making decisions whether to arrest or charge.
‘Deleting ‘insulting’ from Section 5 would send a clear message to people that it’s entirely acceptable to intimidate others with disturbing hate literature. Britain has moved on from the time when gay people could be attacked with impunity. We should be loud in our support for any law that makes sure we don’t take a step back into the past.’
No – Cllr Mike Harris, head of advocacy at Index on Censorship
In 2012, in a multicultural society which is pluralistic and diverse, criminalising offence or insult is an absurdity. Index on Censorship is pleased the government is consulting on removing insult from the Public Order Act – but consultation isn’t enough, it needs to change the law. The police should concentrate on violent acts or direct incitement to violence, not criminalising ordinary free speech. This law has been used to arrest a student who held up a sign calling Scientology a cult.
‘London is a centre of protest and Section 5 is often used to silence non-mainstream views. But because “insult” is such a broad term it creates bizarre legal inconsistencies and penalizes groups who are considered more offensive. here is legal authority that defacing an American flag in Trafalgar Square would be a non-insulting form of protest (and not criminal) but burning a poppy next to the burning flag would be criminally insulting. Some free speech is apparently more equal than others.
‘In our culture of offence there is the unrealistic expectation that the police will protect individuals from being insulted. This puts the police in a difficult position – who do they protect from insult: atheists or militant Christians, homophobes or gay people? We see laws like this used in Russia to stop gay pride marches, and in the UK Section 5 was used 26,000 times in 2009 – often during legitimate protests. Every weekend I walk past intolerant street preachers in Lewisham Market whose views I find insulting. They find my views on civil liberties insulting – but it’s not the job of the police to arbitrate between us. That’s what free speech is for.’