The Home Secretary has said she will amend section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 so that the word ‘insulting’ is removed, after accepting that the wording of the section impinged unnecessarily on free speech.
The controversial wording of the law was brought into sharp focus by a string of cases that highlighted how it could be interpreted with ridiculous consequences.
In 2006 police attempted to prosecute student Sam Brown after he told a police officer that he thought his horse was ‘gay’. The police arrested him under section 5 for using insulting words that caused the officer distress. Mr Brown was ordered to pay an £80 fine, but appealed the conviction and the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case.
In another incident Kyle Little, 16, was arrested for saying the word ‘woof’ to two Labrador dogs in a park. The dogs’ owner thought he was playing the fool, but passing police officers took offence and charged him under section 5.
Mr Little was convicted by magistrates and fined £50 with £150 costs. His conviction was overturned on appeal to Newcastle Crown Court in a case that cost around £8,000 to pursue.
Speaking afterwards he described the situation he faced.
“The dogs were both barking their heads off and so I did a daft little growl and went woof woof at them,” he said.
“The next thing I knew I had been grabbed by the two police officers who bent my arms up behind my back and handcuffed me. They threw me into a van and whisked me off to the police station where they threw me into a cell for about five hours,” he added.
Free speech campaigners including actor Rowan Atkinson, have long argued that the provision of the act unnecessarily curbs free speech and denies the public the right to criticise, provoke and promote alternative points of view.
Members of the House of Lords agreed, voting to remove the provision by 150 to just 54 last month. Now Theresa May has accepted the proposed removal of the wording, adding that after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions it was felt that doing so would not jeopardise other convictions under the Act.
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