The government yesterday backed a Lords amendment to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Section 5(1) of the Act reads as follows:
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he —
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
However, the law as it stands has been open to abuse and led to a number of arrests that have been widely condemned.
Amongst the most well-known case was that of a 21-year old student who spent a night in a cell during 2005 after calling a police horse “gay”.
Another example involved a teenager being arrested in 2008 after describing Scientology as a “cult”, while Jamie Murray, who runs a Christian cafe in Blackpool, was threatened with arrest if he didn’t remove bible scriptures that a customer had complained about, saying that some verses were insulting.
Examples such as the above, as well as many more that have been reported in the media over the last few years, not only reveal the way in which a minority of police officers deal with such petty complaints, but also just how thin-skinned so many people across the country have become.
Quite how the nation reached a stage where complainants feel the need to involve the police in such trivial matters is a mystery.
Imagine if everybody took the law so literally. Imagine if calling someone else’s favourite football team “rubbish” was to lead someone to feel so insulted that they needed to contact the police. Imagine if the police took a complaint such as that seriously.
Thankfully there looks to be an end to any legal option for the easily offended, or who make petty complaints for simply having disagreed with a person who has a different opinion.
In December, the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment which would remove the word ‘insulting’ from both clause (a) and clause (b).
During a second reading of the Bill in the Commons yesterday the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that there was no reason for the Government to challenge the verdict in Lords vote.
More serious offences involving verbal abuse or threatening behaviour will continue to be covered by the new wording, ensuring that the removal of the word “insulting” cannot lead to a law that allows for much more serious offences to be carried out.
It’s taken years of campaigning to achieve, but the upcoming change in the law represents another victory for common sense.