Rowan Atkinson and Free Speech

I really enjoy watching  British actor Rowan Atkinson‘s two signature characters, Mr. Bean and Blackadder, but now Mr Atkinson has given me another reason to like him. He, along with some others, is campaigning against a British law which outlaws insulting words and behavior. I found the story in the Mail Online.

Rowan Atkinson is demanding a change in the law to halt the ‘creeping culture of censoriousness’ which has seen the arrest of a Christian preacher, a critic of Scientology and even a student making a joke.

The Blackadder and Mr Bean star criticised the ‘new intolerance’ behind controversial legislation which outlaws ‘insulting words and behaviour’.

Launching a fight for part of the Public Order Act to be repealed, he said it was having a ‘chilling effect on free expression and free protest’.

He went on: ‘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.’

Campaigners say the Public Order Act is being abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors. Section 5 of the 1986 Act outlaws threatening, abusive and insulting words or behaviour, but what constitutes ‘insulting’ is unclear and has resulted in a string of controversial arrests.

A 16-year-old boy was arrested under the legislation for peacefully holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult followers of the movement.

Gay rights campaigners from the group Outrage! were arrested under the Act when they protested against the Islamist fundamentalist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was calling for the killing of gays, Jews and unchaste women.’

He added: ‘The law should not be aiding and abetting the new intolerance.’

Mr Atkinson was joined by Lord Dear, former chief constable of West Midlands Police, who plans to lay down a Parliamentary amendment to delete the word ‘insulting’ from the Act.

Lord Dear said: ‘Section 5 wrongly brings the criminal law – and the police who must enforce it – into the realm of debate and dissent.’

Former shadow home secretary David Davis, a leading campaigner for civil liberties, 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.’

The campaign is backed by unlikely bedfellows The Christian Alliance and The National Secular Society, as well as Big Brother Watch, The Freedom Association and The Peter Tatchell Foundation.

Quite right, The right of free speech and the supposed right to not be offended are completely incompatible. If we are only free to say things which offend no one, than we don’t have freedom of speech at all.

The real problem with such laws is that insulting words and behavior are really in the mind of the one insulted and are therefore subjective, which makes it almost impossible to enforce such laws objectively and even-handedly. Anyone can claim offense at anything anyone else has said or done and there is no way to know to what extent they really are offended. Enforcement of such speech codes, therefore has to be somewhat arbitrary with unpopular or politically incorrect persons and causes subject to harassment. I note that the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir was not disturbed.


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