Freedom of Speech and Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act

For one to find members of the Christian Institute and National Secular Society signing up for the same campaign is a rare occurrence indeed. Moreover, when one finds Peter Tatchell vigorously defending Evangelical street preachers live on television – singling them out as a speific case in point – one must seriously consider whether there is something painfully wrong with a particular piece of legislation. Certainly, the supporters of the Reform Section 5 Campaign think so.

Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act outlaws ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’. It is the contention of the Reform Section 5 Campaign that the word ‘insulting’ should be removed from this legislation. The ‘insulting’ clause, they aver, ‘restricts free speech and penalises campaigners, protesters and even preachers’. Indeed, at least one of the ‘street preachers’ listed on the campaign website is known to this blogger.

So, why is such a small clause causing such a big hoo-ha? Ultimately, this campaign is about freedom of speech and the reach of the law. In effect, this clause is being used to shut down the right to disagree, the freedom of open debate and allows subjective feelings, quite apart from any intention on the part of the speaker, to criminalise individuals for merely expressing opinion. In equally disturbing measure, it allows the Police to be the initial arbiters of that deemed insulting and, even the briefest look at the ‘victims of section 5‘ page, shows that they are neither proportionate, fair nor reasonable in their interpretation.

I am well aware that, in certain Christian circles, street preaching has fallen out of favour and is considered to have had its day. However, this law has far wider reaching implications for Christians beyond those taking the gospel ‘into the highways and byways’ (to quote another of my street preaching friends). Just as those who preach the gospel in town centres are being criminalised for expressing statements from scripture (often, not even for expressing a view ex nihilo but following some leading question eliciting the response), it will not be long before what was considered criminal in town centres is made criminal in churches and, shortly after, even the privacy of one’s own home. To be frank, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that one of those who felt ‘insulted’ in the street may, one day, enter a church only to find their sensibilities insulted in like manner.

This clause is neither necessary nor equitable in a society which values the freedom of speech. It is my view, along with the signatories to the campaign, that Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act must be reformed. To maintain the law as it stands and to continue to enforce it as has been the case until now, is to oppose free speech, disregard the right to disagree and allow subjective feelings to act as arbiter over objective realities.