Towards the end of May 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron was censured in Parliament by Speaker John Bercow after using “unparliamentary language” to describe a member of the opposition. Mr Cameron had called Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who was sitting opposite the prime minister at the time, a “muttering idiot”. As Dave shows signs of losing his composure amid growing economic problems, civil rights campaigners and politicians have banded together to call for an end to laws that ban insulting language.
Sticks and Stones
The concept of prohibiting insulting words may seem bizarre in a society that is thought to champion free speech. As Mr Cameron made clear when addressing Mr Balls, who had earlier goaded the prime minister, a couple of choice words, though perhaps not in keeping with parliamentary etiquette, can be sufficient to make a point. When asked to amend his insult, Mr Cameron smiled before describing the shadow chancellor as the ‘man who left us this enormous deficit and this financial crisis’. Sometimes, it would seem, an explicit insult can be kinder than a more rational, wordy barb.
Perhaps Mr Cameron was wrong to call Mr Balls a muttering idiot. Perhaps not. Either way, the insult could be interpreted as borderline illegal if provisions of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA) are taken literally. Under the Act, an offence is caused if language is used that might induce alarm, harassment or distress. Fortunately for Mr Cameron, Mr Balls seemed relaxed with the prime minister’s use of language. Had he been upset, would the leader of the Coalition have found himself in trouble with the police?
Section 5 of the POA states that a person is guilty of an offence if he uses “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour… within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby”. The problem with Section 5 is that it fails to accurately define “threatening, abusive or insulting” language. The defendant can escape prosecution if he can prove that his conduct was reasonable or that he believed nobody would be harassed, alarmed or distressed by his behaviour, but knowing when the line of decency is being crossed in the first place might be impossible for some.
In 2006, a student at Oxford University was arrested after insinuating that a police horse was gay. Refusing to pay an £80 on-the-spot fine for making a homophobic remark, the student spent the night in jail. Charges were dropped the next day, but had police already gone too far by arresting a student for saying the word gay? Was the horse offended? Did the mounted police officer suffer harassment, alarm or distress?
A survey commissioned by ComRes revealed that only 17 per cent of politicians believe that amending Section 5 would lead to greater public unrest. 62 per cent were in favour of repealing the provision altogether, arguing that the state has no right to ban insulting remarks.
In a society that extols the benefits of free speech, the existence of a law prohibiting insulting language is somewhat ludicrous. What might be defined as insulting is already a matter of heated debate and police officers have already proved that the law can be used to curtail individual rights and freedoms to a certain extent. Perhaps whoever helped draft and implement Section 5 is the muttering idiot.
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