A few years back, a young Oxford University student who was out celebrating the conclusion of some exams came out of a bar and made a childish comment to a policeman. This comment landed him in jail. The comment? “Excuse me, do you realize your horse is gay?” Rather than ignoring him, the policeman demanded he pay a fine of £80. When he refused, he was arrested under Section 5 of the 1986 UK Public Order Act. Thames Valley Police said: “He made homophobic comments that were deemed offensive to people passing by.”
“The whole thing is absolutely absurd,” said Mr. Brown. “There were about six police officers and a whole load of patrol cars.”
A jury eventually overturned the ruling, but not before calling significant public attention to Section 5, the infamous clause in the Public Order Act which states that,
A person is guilty of an offence if he:
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
British comedian Rowan Atkinson, in a short speech last week at the Reform Section 5 Campaign’s Parliamentary Reception, called it, “That thing where you can arrest anybody for saying anything that might be construed by anyone else as insulting.”
Other victims of Section 5 include a Christian preacher who told a passer-by that homosexuality was immoral, a 16-year-old holding a poster that read, “Scientology is a Dangerous Cult,” two hotel managers who engaged a customer in conversation about Mohammed and Islamic dress for women, and a preacher who told police privately, upon being questioned, that he thought homosexuality was a sin. Atheist John Richards, who placed a sign in his window which stated, “religions are fairy stories for adults,” was told by police that he could be arrested under Section 5. Animal rights protestors who displayed toy seals dyed with red food coloring were threatened with arrest and seizure and told by police that the toys were distressing to members of the public. Following a complaint from a customer, police reportedly told Christian café owner Jamie Murray to stop playing DVDs in his establishment that showed texts from the New Testament.
It’s interesting to note that in most of the cases mentioned above, the supposed offenders were eventually acquitted, although sometimes at significant cost to themselves and to British taxpayers who had to fund the ridiculous court costs accrued by the imprudent actions of public servants who were given free reign by an absurd law. In his speech earlier this month, Rowan Atkinson touched on the inherent absurdity of attempts to ban insulting language, saying:
“The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult by some parties. Ridicule, easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavorable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, — can be interpreted as insult. And since so many things can be interpreted as insulting, it is hardly surprising that so many things have been.”
To ban insults is to outlaw a form of speech that is central to most disagreements and controversies – even those which are wholly cordial. Anytime there is a verbalized clash of ideas, there is a likelihood that one party will poke fun at another. In many cases, there is also the possibility that one party will completely lose his or her head and spout off something really offensive. There is always the probability that the two sides in a public debate will publicly declare their opponents to be wrong. It is not a travesty that calls for government intervention but an unavoidable by-product of free speech rights– and of human nature.
Atkinson wisely suggests that a culture which cannot handle insults needs to be exposed to them more regularly:
“For me,” he says, “the best way to increase society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech, is to allow a lot more of it. We need to build our immunity to taking offense, so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly justified criticism can raise. The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, but more speech.”
This brings us to the central problem with laws banning insults, which is that the task of deciding what type of language is insulting is left to the government. A ban on insulting language is not like a ban on swearing or a ban on using curse words in public places. It is a ban which can encompass even justifiable criticism. Indeed, it has the Kafkaesque quality of being a ban on nothing in particular and therefore on potentially anything.
“They [police officers] don’t seem to need a real victim,” Atkinson warns. “They need only to make the judgment that somebody could have been offended if they had heard or read what has been said.”
It is these open-ended bans and this undefined repression which makes the modern era’s war on intolerance so deadly to liberty and so poisonous to law. A nation which is governed by the proverbial “rule of law” is a nation in which citizens are able to easily ascertain what is and is not allowed. The rule of law is characterized by lucid legal language and common sense judgments which are intelligible to the majority of the citizens. It is only in despotic nations that citizens must live in constant fear of breaking some law which they have never heard of and which makes no sense to them at all.
“We live in a country where insults are illegal,” laments the Reform Section 5 Campaign’s official video. If you’re an American citizen, you still live in a country where insults are legal. Unfortunately, if the trends in Western Europe and Canada are any indication of the future, you are going to have to fight with all of your might to keep it that way.