Law banning insults to be scrapped

Victory for campaigners

The controversial law making it an offence to insult someone is to be scrapped.

Home Secretary Theresa May last night announced that the contentious section of the Public Order Act, which has been described as a ‘chilling’ curb on free speech, would be dropped.

It comes after a campaign led by Rowan Atkinson, who argued that the catch-all phrase outlawing ‘insulting words or behaviour’ was too broad. It was also feared the law could be used against comedians making jokes to which some people took offence.

'Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult,' Atkinson told a meeting in Parliament in October,

May has now confirmed that the word ‘insulting’ would be removed from Section 5 of the Act, after it was challenged in the Lords before Christmas.

According to Mrs May, the police felt that ‘including the word “insulting” is a valuable tool’ – but Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer has said the dropping of the word will not hinder his work. The Act will still outlaw abusive behaviour

The U-turn comes after a series of arrests and prosecutions for being insulting – most famously the Oxford student arrested for saying to a policeman in 2005: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’. 

In another case a 16-year-old boy was arrested under the legislation for peacefully holding a placard that read ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult Scientologists.

In his speech last year, Atkinson said he wanted to 'deal with the Outrage Industry: self-appointed arbiters of the public good, encouraging media-stoked outrage, to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react'.

Published: 15 Jan 2013

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