During the Commons debate on the second reading of the Protection of Freedoms Bill in March 2011, Edward Leigh MP argued in favour of an amendment to section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Section 5 currently outlaws both the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour and the display of a sign which is threatening abusive or insulting if they are done within the hearing or sight of a person to whom they are likely to cause distress or alarm. Mr Leigh would like to see the word ‘insulting’ removed from the section. He believes that the inclusion of the word ‘insulting’ places undue restrictions on the freedom of expression. In October 2011 the Home Office announced a period of consultation to discuss, among other matters, whether section should be amended as Mr Leigh suggests.
We are conscious that the argument for the decriminalisation of insulting words and behaviour has to some extent been fuelled by those seeking to express views about homosexual identity and behaviour based on a religious orthodoxy. This is after all the section of the Act under which Mohammed Hasnath was prosecuted for posting ‘gay free zone’ stickers on the DLR network last year. Understandably we are very cautious about the proposed amendment.
Those in favour of the amendment suggest that, when compared against threats and abuse, insults are the lesser of the three evils. We disagree. Those who employ insult as a debating tool do so because they understand that such insults generate a dynamic of their own. We believe the effects of the ‘gay free zone’ sticker campaign could easily have been foreseen and we strongly suspect that they were. Like the symbolic burning of poppies on Armistice Day, it represented a deliberate attempt to exploit cultural sensitivities in order to foment tension, undermine community cohesion and ultimately radicalise Muslim youth. In our view, if we dismiss insulting words and behaviour as the lesser of three types of conduct, we afford too little credence to the lasting and pernicious effects of such insults, usually manifested in the breakdown of community cohesion.
In our opinion, the word “insulting” in section 5 fulfills a valuable function and removing it potentially creates a permissive environment in which insult becomes a legitimate means of disrupting community cohesion. In our view such a change would have a disproportionately detrimental affect upon LGBT people, and in all likelihood other groups such as the Muslim community.
We feel that those who are responsible for instigating this debate have lost sight of the fact that section 5 does not outlaw insulting words and behaviour per se, but insulting words and behaviour which foreseeably will cause alarm or distress, and are therefore misrepresenting the debate. We do not understand the basis on which it is claimed that the right to cause distress and alarm through by way of gratuitous insult is protected by the right of freedom of expression. It has fallen to the courts to consider this point on a number of occasions, most notably in the case of Percy in which Mrs Justice Hallett stated:
“A civilised society must strike an appropriate balance between the competing rights of those who may be insulted by a particular course of conduct and those who wish to register their protest on an important matter of public interest.“
It has always been our position that the ‘gay free zone’ stickers overstepped the boundaries of legitimate public debate. We wish to retain the right to be able to walk through the streets of Tower Hamlets without being subjected to hurtful insult purely because of our sexual orientation or gender identity. We strongly oppose the amendment of section 5.
Our response in full to the Home Office consultation can be accessed through our documents page