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Issue 284, Friday 28 December 2012 - 14 Safar 1434
Abusing the insulted
Under the 1986 Public Order Act, it is a criminal offence to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour.” It covers speech and writing on signs. But this could change after the House of Lords passed an amendment to remove the word “insulting” from Section Five, unless it is voted down later in the House of Commons.
The amendment came after Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, changed his previous opposition and said he would approve the removal. The move is supported by a mixture of peers, Christian and secular groups, comedians and gay rights activists, based mainly on claims that it hampers the right to free speech, including in jokes The argument is that there is not a clear, significant and definable difference between insulting and abusive, even though the change, recognised by supporters, will have an impact on certain communities, especially Muslims.
The issue of leaving only threatening and abusive behaviour presents another problem for the Coalition Government, which launched a public consultation in October 2011, but has yet to formally respond. However, during the House of Lords debate earlier this month, Home Office Minister, Lord Taylor, revealed that the Government was not seeking to change the law and had to consider the full implication. “The task falling to Government on this issue is to carefully balance the right of people in a democratic society to express themselves freely with the Government’s responsibilities to protect the rights of others to go about their lawful business without being caused harassment, alarm or distress.” he said.
The decision now is for the Government to seek an amendment to overturn the removal but faces divisions within the Coalition, confronted with arguments that religions should be no exception to be insulted for the sake of so-called free expression. Is it a sign of our times to make it an open door so that people can express themselves by personally insulting beliefs without it being deemed abusive? It is a sad reflection on society that Prime Minister, David Cameron, has to determine will not be allowed to happen.
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