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Pressure builds for the reform of Section 5, which criminalises ‘insulting words or behaviour’

Pressure is building in favour of reform of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’.  An amendment is being put forward in the House of Lords today which proposes that the word ‘insulting’ should be removed from the Act, and the government is expected to look into the issue over the summer recess.  The Deputy Prime Minister already backs the reform of Section 5, and according to a recent poll, 62% of MPs believe that the law should not include a ban on insults.  A recent Home Office consultation on the issue also received a large number of responses from members of the public in support of reform.  The British Humanist Association (BHA) believes that Section 5 represents a threat to freedom of expression, and welcomes the pressure in favour of reform. 

Section 5 outlaws ‘insulting words or behaviour’ in a way which is likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’.  It has resulted in some well-known absurd arrests and prosecutions, such as the arrest of the Oxford student who told a police officer ‘do you realise your horse is gay?’, and the fine issued to a man who growled and said ‘woof’ to two Labrador dogs.  More seriously, it been used in a way which has worrying implications for freedom of speech: in 2008 a 16-year-old boy was detained for holding a placard which described Scientology as a ‘dangerous cult’, and an atheist pensioner in Lincolnshire was recently warned by the police for displaying a poster in his window which stated that ‘religions are fairy stories for adults’.

Pavan Dhaliwal, BHA Head of Public Affairs, commented that ‘the word “insulting” in Section 5 is extremely vague and wide-ranging, as an opinion which one person considers to be valid criticism could be regarded by someone else as an insult.  The police and the courts also make the decision as to whether your actions constitute “insulting behaviour”, which means that Section 5 gives the authorities a licence to suppress alleged “insults” in way which threatens freedom of speech.  This is an issue which Humanists are very familiar with, as members of religious groups often demand that legitimate criticism of their beliefs should be shut down in order to avoid causing ‘offence’ or ‘insult’.  In order to protect freedom of speech, we would like the word ‘insulting’ to be removed from Section 5.’

Notes

For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at pavan@humanism.org.uk or on 0773 843 5059.

The BHA’s response to the Home Office Consultation on the Public Order Act: https://humanism.org.uk/news/view/964

BBC News articles about Section 5:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18084081

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18102815

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of ethically concerned, non-religious people in the UK. It is the largest organisation in the UK campaigning for an end to religious privilege and to discrimination based on religion or belief, and for a secular state.

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