We all know that insulting people is bad manners, but what many people did not realise is that until last week, insulting people was actually a crime. Under Section 5 of the Public Order Act “insulting words or behaviour” were outlawed, with no clear definition of what qualified as an insult.
People have been arrested for a slew of peculiar “crimes”. Telling a police officer his horse was gay. Holding a banner describing Scientology as a dangerous cult. Growling and barking at two passing dogs. Playing a DVD with quotations from the Bible.
Some of these “crimes” were people making statements with which many people disagree. Describing homosexuality as a sin. Describing religion as fairy stories for adults. But you do not have to agree with someone to believe they should be able to voice their opinion without threat of a police crackdown.
In an open society, you debate with people who do not share your views. You do not silence them.
So we have made a change. A big change. It will still be a crime to discriminate against others, to harass people or to incite violence. But that key phrase, “insulting words or behaviour”, is gone. That is a significant step forward for freedom of speech.
People will now be able to speak their mind without fear.
Civil liberties are not often cause célèbre. It has been too easy, for too long, for governments to eat away at our freedom without most people noticing. Now, in government, Liberal Democrats are steadily reversing that tide.
Restoring freedom of speech is just one step. We cancelled ID cards. We have stopped the police from storing the DNA of innocent people and limited stop and search. We have ended fingerprinting of children in schools without their parents’ consent.
And in the coming months, we will go further. We have rolled back the authoritarian state. Our next project is to roll forward the liberal freedoms of the individual – overturning many of the rules and regulations that stop people from making their own choices, taking their own risks, and getting on with their own lives.
* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and Minister of Crime Prevention in the Home Office