I have to say, upfront, I love the civility that surrounds any discussion of British politics. The most recent example occurred 16 October when Rowan Atkinson took issue with a particular clause in the Public Order Act of 1986 in Britain.
As Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 currently reads, Edmund Blackadder would have somewhat of a difficult time formulating a sentence any time Baldrick enters the room. At the center of the controversy is the provision of the Public Order Act of 1986 which considers it illegal to insult people. When you think back to the early days of Rowan Atkinson in Not the Nine O’Clock News, it does seem that, in 2012, life actually does seem to be imitating art.
As brilliantly reported in the Digital Journal, Atkinson, speaking at a reception in the British Houses of Parliament in front of Members of Parliament and Peers (members of the House of Lords) cautioned that criticism, unfavourable comparison or “merely stating an alternative point of view” could, under Section 5 of the Public Order Act as it presently stood, lead to arrest. The star of Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder and Mr. Bean went on to say, “The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult. Ridicule is easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult.”
Stephen Fry, often described in Britain as a ‘national treasure’, has also lent his support to the campaign by tweeting “Insults aren’t nice. But should they be illegal? Support my friends in removing ‘insulting’ from public order act.”
According to individuals that are in support of the repeal of Section 5, at issue is whether it is a function of the state to protect individuals from insult and quotes from the legal textbook ‘The Law of Public Order and Protest’: “Section 5 extends the criminal law into areas of annoyance, disturbance and inconvenience. In particular, it covers behaviour which falls short of violence or the threat of violence”. Citing an increased usage of the provision by UK police who are using it as a catch-all provision convenient for silencing those expressing views which others find uncomfortable, or, on occasions, views which the establishment wishes to suppress.
Organizers of reformsection5.org.uk targeting the repeal of a criminal law as it relates to insults and insulting behaviour takes the view that an “inconvenience with no threat of violence is not the sort of situation which should warrant the involvement of the police and the courts.” It does not dispute that laws are necessary to protect against defamation, incitement to violence or threats of violence“.
Support for the repeal of the provision in question also came from leading Conservative back bench Member of Parliament, David Davis, who said, “The simple truth is that in a free society, there is no right not to be offended. For centuries, freedom of speech has been a vital part of British life, and repealing this law will reinstate that right.”
Having witnessed Parliament during a Q&A session both on the small screen and in person, I would absolutely love to see how this plays out in the coming weeks. One thing, for sure, it will definitely be a civil and adult discussion.