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Criminalising insulting words undermines free speech

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Leading civil liberties organisation ‘Index on Censorship’ has called for the word ‘insulting’ to be removed from the Public Order Act on the basis that the word’s inclusion in legislation has “a corrosive effect on free speech” in the UK.

Section 5 of the Public Order Act imposes criminal penalties for using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour causing harassment, alarm or distress.

Mike Harris, Head of Advocacy at Index on Censorship, said: “Criminalising ‘insult’ has a detrimental effect on freedom of expression”.

“The Public Order Act is so broad that almost any protester on any subject can be arrested and fined for harassment, causing alarm or distress.”

Street Preachers

The inclusion of the word ‘insulting’ has led to the arrest of Christian street preachers, including a 69 year old evangelist, Harry Hammond, who was ordered to pay costs of £395 for holding up a sign which said that homosexuality was a sin.

“Christian preachers or mouthy anarchists may irritate, but in an open, free society, robust opinion will insult you: perhaps we all just need to get used to it”, said Mike Harris.

“While it's easy to see how Hammond's behaviour could rile a crowd, the danger with policing offence is that it's highly subjective. Perhaps only a generation ago, when there was very little tolerance towards homosexuality, a gay pride march could have been prosecuted for insulting Christians like Hammond.”

Further Incidents

A number of other incidents have also caused concern over the use of Section 5:

  • In October 2011 the owners of a Christian cafe were told by police that displaying bible verses on a television screen breached Section 5.
  • Preacher Dale Mcalpine was arrested in April 2010 and held in a police cell after telling a Police Community Support Officer that homosexual practice is a sin.
  •  In March 2009 Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang were arrested after a Muslim guest complained that she had been offended by the couple’s comments at their hotel after a religious discussion over whether Jesus was just a prophet, or the Son of God.
  • Police officers used Section 5 to try to stop Andy Robertson preaching in Gainsborough marketplace in June 2008, claiming that people might be “offended”, despite his having preached there for ten years.
  • In December 2008 Anthony Rollins was arrested under Section 5 for preaching in Birmingham after a bystander complained that he read out a bible passage on homosexuality. Mr Rollins described the event as making him feel “anxious, shocked and very humiliated”. Police were later ordered to pay him £4,250 in compensation.


The Home Office recently held a consultation on whether or not to retain the word “insulting” in Section 5, and is currently in the process of reviewing the public’s response.

MPs from across the political spectrum are backing an amendment, tabled by Conservative MP Edward Leigh, to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5. A vote on the amendment is expected at the Report Stage of the Protection of Freedoms Bill.


Andrea Minichiello Williams, CEO of Christian Concern, commented:

“There have been many injustices under the Public Order Act, as it has been used by officials to arrest Christian preachers and suppress free speech.”

“If “insulting” behaviour continues to be a criminal offense then Christians will continue to be vulnerable to subjective judgments and complaints from those who do not like the message of the Gospel. It is time for the law in this area to be changed.”


The Guardian


Christian Concern: Religious Freedom

Christian Concern: Response to Consultation on Section 5 of the Public Order Act