The Fight For Free Speech (Reform Section 5)

Hopes to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act

The ability to speak freely, said Rowan Atkinson, is the second most precious thing in life, above it only the need to sustain life through the consumption of food.

The struggle for the freedom to express one’s thoughts without inhibition has been (or rather is) a long and sanguine one. The price of dissent to public or official opinion has often been ultimate. The victims we remember – Socrates, Galileo, Mandela, Theo van Gogh, Malala Yousafzai – are but a representation of the near universal repression of opinion and thought that has been endured.

When contemplating the ongoing struggle for basic human rights, we remorsefully consider the poor souls in countries such as North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and Eritrea, who are under the surveillance, and subject to the retributions of Orwellian themed, theocratic and totalitarian regimes. Our sympathies and visions for foreign reforms however, are devalued before we open our mouths.

If you were to learn that a man in China had been arrested for calling a policeman’s horse ‘gay’, or an elderly man in Uganda had been threatened with arrest for displaying a sign that read “religions are fairy stories for adults”, or a café owner in Pakistan had been threatened by police for displaying Bible verses, you would likely be appalled, but perhaps not surprised. If I were to inform you that all of the above had not in fact occurred in China, Uganda, and Pakistan, but in London, Lincolnshire, and Lancashire, your eyebrows would justifiably be raised. This is the state of affairs in our ‘tolerant’ and ‘liberal’ little island in the 21st century.

Blasphemy laws in the UK were only repealed in 2008; not on account of free speech, but for the sake of religious minorities who rightly took affront that the law only protected Christians, and wrongly believed it should be expanded to protect their own sacred versions of the less than convincing.

However, section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 provides ample latitude for quashing free speech. Expressions deemed to be merely “insulting”, that may cause “alarm” or “distress”, are warrant enough for criminal prosecution by the state. “Deemed by who?” I hear you ask, but you already know the answer: other mammals. Other fallible, subjective, and opinionated Homo sapiens.

It is worth remembering that it is not just the right of the speaker to speak, but the right of the audience to hear. The sordid assumption of infallibility by the censor manifests not in the decision of what opinions are right or wrong, but in deciding this for you.

Everyone is entitled to be an author and judge of opinion; no one is entitled to be a judge for another (legally autonomous) person. To do so is not just to deny them their universally enshrined rights to freedom of conscience and expression, but also to devalue their autonomy and standing as an equal, capable member of society.

We have been forced into having the same battles we had forgotten ever having to have. The re-emergence of state-controlled thought is the direct upshot of pseudo-liberal bureaucrats who have cowed to the sensibilities of the ‘vulnerable minorities’ – the very same vulnerable minorities who use the threat of violence and intimidation as the means to a censorious end.

Fortunately there is a resistance to the vicarious capitulation of our rights. One such movement is the ‘Reform Section 5’ campaign – supported by secular and religious groups alike – that aims to reform the Public Order Act 1986 by removing ‘insult’ as a criminal offence (see reformsection5.org.uk). Encouragingly, the House of Lords has recently voted in support of the revision, even amidst fierce opposition from both the whipped Labour and Conservative parties. The revised Bill will now need to be approved by the House of Commons.

No one has the right not to be offended. Being the subject of dissent is a necessary corollary of living in a democratic society. Unless ideas and claims put forward into the public sphere can be subject to debate, criticism, and ridicule, there can be no such thing as a “democratic process” wherein people are able to make informed decisions based on a multiplicity of opinion.

Bad ideas should be met with better ideas, not censorship. Expressions we find repulsive or repugnant should be met with public disapprobation, contempt, and if it should so warrant, hatred. It is not the job of the state to be the authors of prevailing public opinion.

It is vital to understand that it is the same right that allows the bigot to rant, as for you to speak out against bigotry. That an opinion is not a prevailing or socially accepted one cannot be the criteria for censorship. Progress cannot be achieved without unpopular dissent. If unpopular ideas had always been resisted by the power of popular opinion, we would still be living in a racially segregated, slavery-ridden, misogynistic, undemocratic, intellectually stagnant, and altogether impoverished society.

We must resist this while we still have a voice with which we can resist. We are allowing ourselves to be herded by the thought police into a chilling state of affairs – justified in the name of ‘niceness’, ‘inclusiveness’, ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘respect’. This must be fought against and won – we don’t have the right not to. Help by supporting the ‘Reform Section 5’ campaign.

David van Rooyen

David van Rooyen is an academic tutor and PhD candidate at the University of Durham.

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