Peter Tatchell’s New Crusade

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has helped launch a campaign to reform the arbitrary and wide-sweeping 1986 Public Order Act, claiming that Section 5 effectively outlaws free speech and the communication of ideas or disgust on mere emotional grounds, by making the use of “threatening or insulting words or behaviour” illegal.

Written by Chris White

The campaign which is intended to change the language of the much maligned Public Order Act has united a large body of lobbying groups usually at loggerheads with each other, such as the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute, around the issue of free speech.

Unlike in the United States the United Kingdom has no constitutionally protected freedom of expression and therefore the British Parliament is under UK law free to regulate, limit, censor or prohibit any form of expression imaginable.

This has led to a number of absurd situations, such as the arrest and fining of someone for calling a British police horse “gay” and for calling scientology a cult.

Speaking of the campaign and its issues to journalists Peter Tatchell said:

“I have been a victim of Section 5. In 1994, I organised a small peaceful protest against the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, some of whose members had endorsed the killing of Jews, homosexuals, apostates and women who have sex outside of marriage.

I displayed placards that factually documented the persecution of gay people by Islamist fanatics.

I was arrested and charged under Section 5 with behaviour that was deemed insulting and likely to cause distress. I fought the charges and eventually won, but not before spending many hours in police cells and standing trial.

This experience convinced me that Section 5 is open to abuse by over-zealous police and prosecutors.

“The Section 5 ban on insults is a menace to liberty. It has been abused to variously arrest or threaten with arrest people protesting non-violently against abortion and for gay equality and animal welfare. Other victims include Christian street preachers, critics of Scientology and even students making jokes.

In 2008, a teenager was given a court summons for holding a placard that denounced Scientology as a dangerous cult. Three years earlier, an Oxford student was arrested for jokingly suggesting that a police horse was gay.

Under Section 5, is it an offence for a person to use ‘insulting words or behaviour” in a way that is “likely” to cause “harassment, alarm or distress.’

There is no requirement to prove that anyone has been harassed, alarmed or distressed. The mere likelihood is sufficient to secure a conviction. Moreover, an offence is committed regardless of the person’s intention.

If we accept that insults resulting in likely alarm or distress should be a crime, we risk limiting free and open debate and criminalising dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles that some people may find offensive and upsetting. The right to mock, ridicule and satirise ideas, opinions and institutions is put in jeopardy. Section 5 can, in theory, be used to criminalise almost any words, actions or images, if even just one person is likely to be alarmed or distressed by them.

There is no right to be not distressed or offended. Some of the most important ideas in history – such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin – caused great offence and distress in their time.”

According to a recent ComRes poll 62% of all House of Commons MPs were shown to believe that it should not be the function of government to outlaw insults.

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