Lib Dem policy goes viral as ‘Reform Section 5’ campaign launched

“It might surprise you to know that under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, the police and the courts can decide if you or someone else might feel insulted” states the front page of the Reform Section 5 campaign’s website.

But this is unlikely to surprise many Lib Dems, who just a couple of months ago, at our Spring Conference in Gateshead, passed a motion (pdf) which called for the right to free speech to be protected through:

 The repeal of section 5 of the Public Order Act, which creates ‘non-intentional’ speech offences, and the removal of ‘insulting’ from Section 4A of the Public Order Act, both of which have been used to criminalise legitimate freedom of expression.

This motion actually goes further than the campaign is suggesting, calling for the complete repeal of section 5 of the Act rather than simply the removal of the word ‘insulting’. The reason, presumably, for this is that section 5 as a whole is drafted in such wide terms that it’s very easy to see a whole range of behaviour being criminalised for no good reason.

Nevertheless, many Lib Dems will welcome what seems a very well organised campaign (judging by the media coverage yesterday) with a broad range of supporters, including Peter Tatchell and David Davis (though curiously there is no mention of the Lib Dems).

You can follow the campaign’s activities on Twitter here, or on their website here.

* Nick Thornsby is a day editor at Lib Dem Voice.

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  • Daniel Henry 17th May '12 - 12:38pm


  • +1

  • Richard Dean 17th May '12 - 1:33pm

    Is this a competition to make the shortest possible comment? Here is a long one …. Is it possible for someone to provide a little MORE information. Was the Sping Conference fully informed? Sectuon 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 states that a person is guilty of an offence if, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress, he— .

    (a)uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
    (b)displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, .

    thereby causing that or another person harassment, alarm or distress.

    To prove this, you need to prove intent to harass, alarm, or distress; you need to prove (a) and/or (b); and you need to prove that harrassment, alarm, or distress was actually caused. I’m not too sure what the difference between abusive and insulting is (maybe one of degree?), but even so, this seems to me like a clause that LibDems ought to support, rather than fight against. Or perhaps argue to change “insulting” to “seriously insulting”?

  • Antony Hook Antony Hook 17th May '12 - 8:15pm

    Prof John Howson of Oxford and I submitted an amendment to this part of the motion so we would support removal of “insulting” but not repeal of the whole s. 5 Public Order Act.

    There are about 1000 victims of reported s. 5 offences each year and in most cases it is abuse or actual threats. The victims are typically people working in public service (on public transport, in the NHS or police) or people living in some of our roughest neighbourhoods. In our view the law should protect people from being victims of abuse or threats in a public place, which s. 5 punishes proportionately with a maximum of a fine.

    Do we really want a country where in a public place you can’t be exposed to passive smoke but you can be threatened?

    I was very surprised when I heard the FPC endorsed repeal of s. 5 (prior to conference) without at least consulting the Police Federation or organisations representing public transport or NHS workers, so we would at least no how they might feel about the matter.

    We were very disappointed that the FCC did not even permit the amendment to be debated.

    We were told the FCC did not regard it as an important enough issue to be debated.

    In my view, if the partial de-criminalisation of threats and abuse is important enough to go in the motion in the first place then it should be regarded as important enough for an amendment against it to at least be debated.

    I have a feeling the FPC, FCC and perhaps conference as a whole did not appreciate, in the context of a long motion containing at least one otherquite controversial point, what they were endorsing when they approved the motion as drafted.

  • Richard Dean 18th May '12 - 12:31am

    @Anthony Hook. Thanks. The FPC and FCC actions do seem distressing. However, the 1986 Act is available at and Section 5.1 does seem to remove the need to prove either intent or that actual harassment, alarm or distress occurred. This is removing a lot!

    For the 1000 victims, why not use Section 4A, with its added benefit of imprisonment as well as fine possible if found guilty? Section 5 has less to prove but also a lighter fine, so cases have less deterrent value. Section 5 is also arguably open to misuse. I’m sure neither the police nor the courts do misuse it, but the apparent possibility can result in some people having a greater distrust in both, and distrust is also the enemy of law and order.

  • As an absolute absolutist on free speech, what is wrong with “intentional” insulting speech as well? We should also repeal libel and slander and incitement.

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