In Depth

Free to call a police horse gay: Section 5 reformed at last

Removal of controversial 'insult' clause from Public Order Act is a victory for campaigners

THE BRITISH public will soon be free to call a police horse gay, insult Scientology or growl at a dog without fear of prosecution, after Home Secretary Theresa May announced a fundamental change to the Public Order Act.

Section 5 of the act allowed the police and courts to determine what is insulting. It will now be amended in what campaigners have called a victory for free speech, The Guardian reports.

The act, which covers both the spoken and written word, will be altered so that a person can only be found guilty of an offence if they use threatening or abusive words or behaviour. No longer will "insulting" words or behaviour be covered.

It comes after a long campaign against the act supported by, among others, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Tory MP David Davis.

The Repeal Section 5 campaign notes that an Oxford student, Sam Brown, was arrested under the act after saying to a police officer: "Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?"

Teenager Kyle Little was arrested and prosecuted over a "daft little growl" at two dogs, despite their owners not supporting the move. Little's conviction was later appealed at Newcastle Crown Court in a case which cost the taxpayer £8,000.

An unnamed 15-year-old who demonstrated outside the Church of Scientology's London headquarters with a sign calling the religion a "dangerous cult" was arrested and charged in 2008, before the CPS dropped the case.

May told MPs the government would accept changes to the act suggested by the House of Lords in December after the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, had assured her "that the word 'insulting' could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] to bring prosecutions".

Simon Calvert, Reform Section 5 campaign director, said: "People of all shades of opinion have suffered at the hands of Section 5. By accepting the Lords' amendment to reform it, the government has managed to please the widest possible cross-section of society. They have done the right thing and we congratulate them." 

However, lawyer Adam Wagner at the Human Rights Blog asks if the changes go far enough, pointing out the police and courts can still decide if "we have sent grossly offensive messages on Facebook, Twitter and in practically any other communications medium" under section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act.

He points to the prosecutions of Liam Stacey, the student jailed for 56 days after tweeting a racist comment about Fabrice Muamba and, Paul Chambers who was prosecuted for making a joke about blowing up an airport on Twitter, to argue section 127 needs reform in the wake of the changes to Section 5.

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