by Hilary White
LONDON, October 26, 2012
He said he wanted to counter “the Outrage Industry: self-appointed arbiters of the public good, encouraging media-stoked outrage, to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react.”
A “new intolerance” is being fed by Section 5, the “insult” wording of the Act, he said. “A new and intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent.”
“‘I’m not intolerant,’ say many softly-spoken, highly educated liberal-minded people,” Atkinson said. “‘I’m only intolerant of intolerance.’ And people tend to nod sagely and say, ‘Oh yes, wise words, wise words.’ And yet if you think about this supposedly inarguable statement for longer than five seconds you realize that all it is advocating is the replacement of one kind of intolerance with another.”
The law, he said, is “indicative of a culture that has taken hold of the program of successive governments that with the reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in society, has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature.”
Known mainly to North American for his television and film roles as Blackadder and Mr. Bean, Atkinson is also popular in Britain as a sketch and stand up comedian on stage. In the course of his long career he has parodied the Germans, the French, Spaniards, actors, opera singers, ballet dancers, mimes, rock musicians and pop divas. He has not spared British institutions like Shakespeare, Oxford University, the Royal Family, the military and the police, liberal Christians, conservative Christians, Catholicism, Anglicanism, and the New Atheists.
Speaking at a meeting at Westminster of the campaign group Reform Section 5, Atkinson placed the freedom to offend people as second only to the right to the means of “sustaining life itself.”
He had, he said, enjoyed freedom of speech throughout his professional life, and had no concerns that he would be arrested for insulting someone. His concern, he said is “more for those more vulnerable because of their lower profile.”
Under the law’s current wording, anything could be interpreted subjectively as “insult,” he said. Criticism, ridicule, and sarcasm, any unfavorable comparison, or “merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult.”
He cited “ludicrous” cases of abuse as a student in Oxford arrested for calling a police horse “gay”; a Christian café owner threatened with arrest for displaying Bible passages on a television screen in his business; and a teenager arrested for holding a placard calling the Church of Scientology a “dangerous cult.”
British humor is self-deprecating and outrageous, often rude, and frequently revolves around mocking the stupidity, shortsightedness and banality that plagues humanity in every walk of life. Without the freedom to insult both individuals and groups, including homosexuals, Atkinson has warned, those great traditions of freedom of mockery will die out and give way to a “culture of censoriousness.”
In Britain, “harassment,” or causing someone “alarm or distress,” is a statutory offense, but the many critics of Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 have warned that it is a law designed to be abused, with the determination of the offense resting on the subjective feelings of the putative victim.
The key, they say, is in the wording: “A person is guilty of an offense if he: (a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior, or disorderly behavior, 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.”
Atkinson could also have mentioned that Section 5 charges are increasingly being levied by police against conservative Christians who object either to the homosexual lifestyle or to the government’s plans to institute “gay marriage.” Christian groups have complained that it is being used specifically to suppress any public opposition to the sexual zeitgeist, particularly the homosexualist movement. Several Christian street preachers have been arrested for citing Biblical passages condemning homosexual activity.
One of them is Adrian Smith, a Christian who recently tweeted, “If the State wants to offer civil marriages to the same sex, that is up to the State: but the State mustn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.” Although his position is held, according to polls, by about 80 percent of the British population, Mr. Smith was arrested and charged under Section 5 after his co-workers at the Trafford Housing Trust testified the message was “blatantly homophobic.” Mr. Smith’s salary was docked by 40 percent for “gross misconduct in publishing views which might be taken as Trafford Trust policy.”
Maureen Messent, a columnist for the Birmingham Mail, said that she laid the blame for this rash of “mean-hearted sniping” at the feet of the homosexual lobby, who have “become suppressors of others’ free speech.”
“They believe they alone must be heard,” she commented.
The campaign to reform Section 5 is drawing a surprisingly broad array of supporters, including the conservative Christian Institute, their usually diametrically opposed National Secular Society; the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch and The Freedom Association. The campaign also claims 60 supporters in the Commons and the House of Lords including UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
Speaking at the meeting with Rowan Atkinson, senior Conservative Party MP David Davis, 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.”
Spectator columnist Rod Liddle wrote last weekend that the push to remove “insult” from the Public Order Act has nearly universal support.
He said the main purpose of the law at present is “to criminalize people who express inconvenient political views.”
“Christians have been arrested merely for reading extracts from the Bible, for example. Gays have been arrested for suggesting that Islam is a bit silly on the subject of homosexuality. One old bloke was warned he would be prosecuted because he put a sign up in his window stating that religion was ‘fairy tales for grown-ups,’” he wrote. “If it is even remotely possible that someone might be offended, the Old Bill steps in.”
Even some leading figures in the LGBT movement say the law goes too far. Peter Tatchell, the head of the radical homosexual group OutRage!, said in May this year that there should be no law against insulting people in a democratic country.
Tatchell told the BBC, “What constitutes insults is a very subjective judgment. It’s been used in very different ways.”
“We may disagree on some those views but I don’t think they should be criminalized in a free and democratic society,” he said. “We should have the right to speak our minds and I think putting up with insults is one of the prices we pay for that freedom.”