A campaign group called Feel Free to Insult Me has been set up recently and is busy attracting publicity to have section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 amended.
This section makes it a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of someone who is likely to suffer harassment, alarm or distress as a result. The campaign group wants to leave in threatening and abusive, but decriminalise the insulting element.
The group itself is an unusual mix, being headed by Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner and David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary as well as various religious groups.
Tatchell himself has often been on the receiving end of insults, as well as dishing quite a few of them out himself, but he now wants to stop the police prosecuting anyone who has insulted someone else, as he and the other group members see it as restriction of free speech.
The 1986 Act was preceded by The Public Order Act 1936, which it repealed. That too made it a criminal offence to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, but the consequences under this earlier act was that it could cause a breach of the peace rather than harassment, alarm or distress.
The 1936 legislation was passed at a time when Oswald Mosley’s blackshirt parades in London often ended in violence and was an attempt to control such behaviour and give the police wide powers to arrest those involved.
In fact, the control of public order goes back to the 14th century, with the Justice of the Peace Act 1361. This gave justices of the peace power to bind over anyone who had behaved in what would today be regarded as an anti social way.
It was not a criminal sanction, the defendant being required to pay a bond and was then bound over to keep the peace for a future specified time. If they subsequently breached the order then the bond would be forfeited to the crown.
The current campaigners for the abolition quote some examples, which they say, justify their belief that the act should be repealed. For example, a student at a demonstration was arrested when he asked a mounted policeman if his horse was gay.
Another student was arrested for demonstrating outside the Church of Scientology holding a placard saying it was a dangerous cult. There has even been an arrest of a footballer for abusing a teammate for a misplaced pass.
These are all examples of, frankly, pretty daft actions by the police and none actually went to court and resulted in a conviction. And that, perhaps, is the flaw in the campaign.
Because to abolish the insulting element, while it may stop such silliness, would also leave many more people vulnerable. We live in a very mixed society.
To insult someone for being different should be discouraged, not encouraged. Peter Tatchell might have a thick enough skin to ride insults about being gay, but not all gay people are, so why should the law not protect them?
What about insults on social media? Should we free up people to randomly insult others? What about behaviour intended to insult a whole group, not just an individual? Should the Muslim cleric who ripped up poppies at a Remembrance Day parade be immune from arrest? Let me know your views below… just don’t offend me when you do!