Every now and then an issue comes along that unites groups who will normally have nothing to do with each other or worse.
It would be a rather big understatement to say that the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute aren’t great friends. They are usually at the opposite ends of the spectrum on a whole range of issues, however yesterday they came together with the Peter Tatchell Foundation and others to unite against Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 states that:
- ” 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 inevitable problem comes when the police or the courts are forced to decide whether someone has been insulted.
In the Clearing the Ground report published by Christians in Parliament earlier in the year examples were given of the way this act has been misused and misinterpreted:
Cafe owner Jamie Murray was warned by two police officers to stop playing DVDs in his Christian cafe that showed texts from the New Testament. Following a complaint from a customer, the police officers told Mr Murray that they were investigating a possible Section 5 offence. Later Lancashire Police said that the police officers had misinterpreted the Public Order Act and apologized for any distress caused to Mr Murray.
Cumbria street preacher Dale Mcalpine was held for seven hours and charged with a Section 5 offence for saying “homosexuality is a sin.” The comments were not made as part of his public preaching but in response to questions from a police community support officer about the issue of homosexuality. Cumbria Police later admitted they acted unlawfully, and agreed to give £7,000 compensation to Mr Mcalpine in settlement for a claim of wrongful arrest, unlawful imprisonment and breach of his human rights.
These cases along with others are highlighted at a new website supported by the Christian Institute along with the other organisations and David Davis MP. It is campaigning together through Reform Section 5 to have the word “insulting” removed from the act.
The Government is currently considering its position on the Public Order Act following on from a public consultation last year established as a result of pressure from a large number of MPs.
I recommend that you take a look at the Reform Section 5 website as it is full of useful information and details of how you can contact your MP and urge them to back the amendment. You can also follow the campaign on Twitter.
In case you may be concerned that vulnerable people will be less protected or that there is an implication that there is nothing wrong with insulting people, this is the response:
‘Nobody has the right not to be insulted or offended. This may seem harsh, but it is an important freedom and one that lies at the heart of our commitment to free speech, pluralism and democracy. It’s not nice to be rude, and we should all think before we speak. But this campaign isn’t about making it easier to insult people. It’s about protecting our freedom when we debate grand issues, or when we practice our faith or disagree with those who do. It’s about preserving the hard won freedom to speak our mind and stand by our beliefs, whatever they may be.’