“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”
~Taught to every child for ages, not so much anymore.
Most comedians have a large level of freedom of speech, and enjoy it. In the world today, we are seeing in our daily lives everyone being more and more afraid to say the wrong thing. It’s like Orwell’s “Thought Police” could nab you at any minute.
Rowen Atkinson understands that because he is a comedian that he is given some distance from what is politically correct, but is seeing some examples where regular people on the street are being arrested for next to nothing. They are not allowed freedom of speech because of the possibility it MIGHT offend another, and therefore, there seems to be a “new intolerance” in the world today.
ROWAN ATKINSON has launched a campaign against a 26-year-old law which has led to the arrest of peaceful protesters deemed to be guilty of insulting behaviour.
The Blackadder actor was speaking at an event to launch the ‘Reform Section 5′ campaign, which is backed by Christians and secularists alike. “The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such,” said Atkinson. “Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.”
Section 5 is part of the Public Order Act 1986, which outlaws the use of words, behaviour or signs that are “threatening, abusive or insulting” near a person likely to be offended by them.
It has led to the arrests of an Oxford University student who asked a mounted police officer if he knew his horse was gay, a protester outside the London HQ of the Church of Scientology holding a placard saying ‘Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult’, and Christian hoteliers who were accused of asking a Muslim guest if she was a terrorist because she was wearing a hijab. All three cases were later dismissed.
Campaigners say the Public Order Act is being abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors, according to the Daily Mail. Last night, Atkinson said he wanted to “deal with the Outrage Industry: self-appointed arbiters of the public good, encouraging media-stoked outrage, to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react”.
He said Facebook and Twitter had exposed “how appallingly prickly and intolerant society has become of even the mildest adverse comment”.
Atkinson was joined by backbench Conservative MP 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.”
Specifically, Atkinson believes, and I share his concern, that the term “insulting”, in addition to the phrasing ”likely to cause”, are far too subjective and, as such, threaten free speech.
That the law has already been used in Kafkaesque fashion, is well illustrated by the case of the Oxford University student arrested for asking a policeman: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” and pertinently, by a 16-year-old boy held for holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’. (For the record, yes I would still be defending his right had the placard read ‘Islam is a dangerous cult’). Civil liberties campaigners, Liberty have stated Section 5 “can have serious implications on peaceful protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence.”
The concern lies in a scenario where meaningful criticism can be curbed under this banner, where accounting leaders through peaceful protests, or any other language or behaviour that might be deemed ‘insulting’, could be curtailed. While we should be able to say something which might be perceived as insulting about someone’s religion, more importantly surely is the fact we should be able to say something insulting, or even act ‘insultingly’ towards those who enact regressive policies, who threaten the NHS, who cut support for the disabled and vulnerable, those who make higher education unobtainable for the majority. As things currently stands, the poor phrasing of Section 5 joins a host of other worryingly vague limits placed on free speech which, rather than protecting minorities, carry the seeds of state censorship.
Here is the thoughtful speech: