Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reform section 5

Freedom of speech is a precious thing. But in the UK, it is being chilled by an outdated, overborad law. Section 5 of the UK's Public Order Act criminalises speech which is "threatening, abusive or insulting". That's right - "insulting". Who decides whether someone is "insulted"? The police.

As can be expected, this has led to a large number of abusive prosecutions. People have been threatened with prosecution or actually arrested, charged and tried for calling Scientology a cult (an obvious statement of truth), barking back at a dog, standing up for gay rights, opposing gay rights, debating religion, displaying "culled" toy seals with red food colouring on them, and saying that religions are fairy stories for adults. You can think a lot of things about those statements, but one thing is clear: none of them should be a criminal matter. None of them reach the level of threats or incitement which would justify restricting speech in a free and open society.

There is a campaign now to Reform Section 5, backed by everyone from the Christian Institute to the National Secular Society. These groups may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing they do agree on is that hurting people's feelings shouldn't be a crime. They have the backing of a pile of MPs, and hopefully this means the law will be changed soon.

Meanwhile, I'm left wondering: like our BORA, the UK Human Rights Act has an interpretation clause, requiring the law to be read in a way so as to give effect to the rights - including freedom of speech - enshrined in the ECHR. So why is it so ineffective? A ban on "insulting" language is exactly the sort of law you'd expect to be read down, if not by a judge, then by police legal staff when they're writing arrest guidelines to avoid cases being tossed. Or is the UK's state apparatus simply not on board with their own human rights law?