The United Kingdom is one step closer to amending a law that prohibits “insulting” speech and has been used to charge preachers speaking against homosexuality.
The House of Lords voted 150-54 last week to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act. A speaker violates the law if he “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”
The House of Commons must pass the amendment before it becomes law.
Geoffrey Dear, the House of Lords member who drafted the amendment, described the term “insulting” as subjective and vague in an op-ed in The Daily Telegraph: “Increasingly the police and other law-enforcement agencies are misinterpreting the legislation to such an extent that it is impinging on the right to free speech.”
A diverse group of supporters rallied behind Dear, including The Christian Institute, the National Secular Society, gay activist Peter Tatchell, and comedian Rowan Atkinson, best known as Mr. Bean. They all agree that Section 5 curbs the right to freedom of speech.
The government has used the insult law to arrest several street preachers who said homosexual behavior was morally wrong. In one case, police arrested Dale Mcalpine in 2010 after he told a gay police officer that homosexuality was a sin. The charges have since been dropped.
At the time, Tatchell, a veteran gay rights campaigner, said the preacher should not have been punished for what he said.
“Although I disagree with Dale Mcalpine and support protests against his homophobic views, he should not have been arrested and charged,” Tatchell said. “Criminalization is a step too far."
The law also led to the arrest of gay activists, a critic of Scientology, and a student who called a police horse “gay.”
Atkinson said he feared a broad term like “insulting,” would encompass criticism, comparison, or “merely stating an alternative point of view” and lead to arrest.
Although British politicians appear ready to loosen speech restrictions, other European countries maintain similar laws to ban insulting speech. French law prohibits anyone from publicly defaming or insulting a person or group of a certain ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, or handicap. Insult laws also exist in Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, and Poland.
In an editorial supporting the amendment to the British law, editors at The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Perhaps the most depressing thing about this saga has been the way in which the state automatically reached for a sledgehammer when faced with a nut.”