British Government Makes Major Concession to Free Speech

Police can no longer arrest citizens for “insulting” words.

In a surprising turnaround, the British Home Secretary has agreed to accept a change to a 1988 law, the Public Order Act, that removes “insulting” from the list of forms of expression that can get one in hot water.

The battle to remove that rather telling word has been fought by an unusual coalition of ardent secularists and devout Christians, two groups that disagree on fundamental issues, but share a habit of saying unpopular things in public. The existing law has been criticized for its frequent abuse by police.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, who has been active in the campaign to make this change, said: “We congratulate the Home Secretary for removing a much-abused catch-all provision where the police could seemingly arrest and charge anyone that irritated them for using trivial or mocking words. The police did not even need to identify the victim that allegedly had been insulted, leaving the whole thing open to misuse. This is a welcome victory for freedom of expression.

“One such ‘insult’ was a student telling a policeman his horse was gay, and another student’s banner claiming “Scientology is a dangerous cult”. The change should also prevent street evangelists preaching against homosexuality being arrested and charged. We’ve said all along that free speech is not free unless it is for everyone – even those we don’t agree with.”

This amendment is a proud step forward for free speech in Britain, and a superb example of activists adhering to principle over partisanship. It’s very difficult to work alongside people with whom one disagrees, but sometimes that’s the best way to protect the things you do agree on.

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