‘In a healthy democracy, it’s every citizen’s right to be insulted… Freedom of speech is at stake here’


[Image courtesy of Stephen Dagnall via ©©]

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but calling never hurt me.” Now there’s a bit of Lancashire wisdom our lawmakers would do well to bear in mind right now. It might come in handy as they scrutinise the precise wording of Section 5 of the Public Order Act which a coalition of secular, religious, and human rights groups is campaigning to have changed.

Quite right, too, as freedom of speech is at stake here and we’ll miss it only when it’s gone.

Section 5, to remind you, outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”. The intention, quite properly, is to protect us from “harassment, alarm or distress”. Who could quibble with the intention?

Equally who wouldn’t want to legislate against threat or abuse - either physical or verbal? But protecting us from insult? Hang on a minute. What exactly constitutes an insult and who’s going to decide?

Many Christians are going to be insulted by the banners and floats of a Gay Pride march. And many gays in turn insulted by Christian placards denouncing homosexuality as ungodly. But invoking the law to arrest, charge and convict an elderly street preacher from Bournemouth for carting around a placard bearing the words “Stop Immorality. Stop homosexuality. Stop Lesbianism.” is just plain barmy.

“Stop Lesbianism”. Now, is that insulting or richly and unintentionally comical? Gay women aren’t so feeble as to need the services of a constable to protect their feelings. And they’re more than capable of hand-crafting an insulting put-down of their own - but might refrain from doing so these days for fear, you’ve guessed it, of falling foul of the law.

Isn’t it time we all cultivated a sense of proportion about these things? Isn’t it time humourless coppers stopped using the law as an excuse for feeling the collars of the otherwise law-abiding? Sure the arrests look good on paper but do nothing to tackle real crimes of violence, intimidation and the grooming of vulnerable girls by predatory rings of middle aged rapists.

We could make a start by backing the campaign to have the word “insulting” removed from the Act altogether. In a healthy democracy sarcasm, derision and insult have long been recognised as effective (non-violent) weapons with which to deflate the pompous, assault the unjust and attack those who would abuse their power to control and coerce us.

Or, to put it another way, to express opinions which others may not share or particularly like. Well, hard lines. It used to be called free speech and further chipping away at it is about as insulting as you can get.

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