From Lord Leveson’s report to the increasingly heavy-handed arrests for social media, freedom of speech was a major issue for Big Brother Watch in 2012 and we were at the fore of calls to change the law.
Today we had a glimmer of hope 2013 will be the year the tide turns and freedom of speech is enhanced and protected.
Speaking as the Crime and Courts Bill returned to the Commons for its second reading, the Home Secretary confirmed the Government would accept Lord Dear’s amendment to the legislation and support amending the Public Order Act 1986 to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Act.
This is a triumph for David Davis MP, Peter Tatchell, Rowan Atkinson, the Reform Section 5 campaign and all those who like Big Brother Watch supported the campaign – from the National Secular Society to the Christian Institute.
In a civil society, it is not for the police to intervene when someone feels they have been insulted. The Home Secretary and her Coalition colleagues should be applauded for this important reform.
This is a simple change but one that will do a huge amount to protect free speech. As the Director of Public Prosecutions and his predecessor both recognised, this change does not diminish the abilities of the police to arrest people for threatening or abusive language, nor does it make it harder to prosecute incitement.
We said at the time of the Government’s opposition to the amendment in the House of Lords it was a bizarre position to take and are very pleased that common sense has prevailed.
Of course, this is not the end of the campaign to defend freedom of speech. The Communications Act 2003 (responsible for the #twitterjoketrial ) and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 (the Poppy arrest) are both in dire need of reform – new guidance is not enough.
We hope after today’s announcement the Home Office is inclined to explore these issues too.