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'We don't need a law against insults': Keir Starmer backs free speech as he says it's OK to offend people
Keir Starmer QC said it was safe to reform the controversial law that says it is a criminal offence to use 'insulting words or behaviour'The clause of the Public Order Act has spurred a campaign which has united activists and celebrities in favour of right for people to insult each other
01:40 GMT, 11 December 2012
Free speech: Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said there is no need for a law that makes it a crime to insult someone
There is no need for a law that makes it a crime to insult someone, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said.
In a boost to free-speech campaigners, Keir Starmer QC said it was safe to reform the controversial law that says it is a criminal offence to use ‘insulting words or behaviour’.
The clause of the 26-year-old Public Order Act has spurred a campaign which has united gay and secular activists, celebrities and conservative Christian evangelicals in favour of a robust right for people to insult each other.
In October, comedian Rowan Atkinson said the law was having a ‘chilling effect on free expression and free protest’.
He warned: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.’
The Crown Prosecution Service, which Mr Starmer heads, has in the past been against any move to strike the word ‘insulting’ from the statute book. But the DPP has now changed his mind, the CPS said.
He wrote in a letter to former West Midlands chief constable Lord Dear: ‘Having now considered the case law in greater depth, we are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as “abusive” as well as “insulting”.
‘I therefore agree the word “insulting” could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.’
However, Mr Starmer added: ‘I also appreciate there are other policy considerations involved.’
The indication from the CPS that the law against insult does nothing to protect the public came as a major boost for the campaign to amend the 1986 Public Order Act.
Warning: Comedian Rowan Atkinson (right) said the law was having a 'chilling effect on free expression and free protest' while gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell (left) said that 'the longer insults are criminalised, the more people will risk losing their right to freedom of speech'
The law was notoriously used in 2005
when an Oxford University student was arrested for saying to a police
officer: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay’ It has also been
used to arrest a Christian
preacher in Workington who told a passer-by that he thought
homosexuality was sinful.
And teenager Kyle Little was fined 50 in
2007 for ‘causing distress’ to a pair of labradors by saying ‘woof woof’
at them within earshot of the police. The case was later quashed on
Simon Calvert of the Christian
Institute think-tank said: ‘We hope Home Secretary Theresa May will
listen to the country’s top prosecutor and agree to reform this
overboard and unwanted legislation.’
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell
said: ‘This legislation has been on the statue books for 26 years,
initially to control football hooligans, major demonstrations and
protests such as the miners’ dispute.
‘But the legislation is now being used to criminalise huge numbers of people for trivial comments.
‘In 2009 the police used this law
18,000 times, including against people who were expressing their views
or beliefs in a reasonable manner.’