Rowan Atkinson on “insulting” free speech

November 2nd, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

No Right Turn blogged:

Freedom of speech is a precious thing. But in the UK, it is being chilled by an outdated, overborad law. Section 5 of the UK’s Public Order Act criminalises speech which is “threatening, abusive or insulting”. That’s right – “insulting”. Who decides whether someone is “insulted”? The police.

As can be expected, this has led to a large number of abusive prosecutions. People have been threatened with prosecution or actually arrested, charged and tried for calling Scientology a cult (an obvious statement of truth), barking back at a dog, standing up for gay rights, opposing gay rights, debating religion, displaying “culled” toy seals with red food colouring on them, and saying that religions are fairy stories for adults. You can think a lot of things about those statements, but one thing is clear: none of them should be a criminal matter. None of them reach the level of threats or incitement which would justify restricting speech in a free and open society.

There is a campaign now to Reform Section 5, backed by everyone from the Christian Institute to the National Secular Society. These groups may disagree on a lot of things, but one thing they do agree on is that hurting people’s feelings shouldn’t be a crime. They have the backing of a pile of MPs, and hopefully this means the law will be changed soon.

I absolutely agree. It is a horrendous law. Have a look at the examples here.

at the launch of the campaign.

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36 Responses to “Rowan Atkinson on “insulting” free speech”

  1. Reid (16,447 comments) says:

    Gee. In the Orwellian world of the UK 2012 who’d a thunk that the police would have been given these powers? After all, they’ve already got the telescreens:

    Technology played a significant part in the detection of thoughtcrime in Nineteen Eighty-Four—with the ubiquitous telescreens which could inform the government, misinform and monitor the population. The citizens of Oceania are watched by the Thought Police through the telescreens. Every movement, reflex, facial expression, and reaction is measured by this system, monitored by the Ministry of Love.

    Interestingly the US is currently trialling biometric software that can indeed detect thoughtcrime – it analyses “movement, reflex, facial expression, and reaction.” Designed to detect “terrorists” at large events, they’ve trialled it on crowds at ball park games and the like.

    Isn’t that interesting.

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  2. hinamanu (2,352 comments) says:

    The conspiracy continues

    RFID chips already being implanted in Texas School children

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  3. Graeme Edgeler (3,289 comments) says:

    We totally have a right not be offended.

    I exercise that right frequently :-)

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  4. PaulL (5,981 comments) says:

    So, he has correctly identified a problem, and one that should be solved.

    But it’s not clear to me that they understand the underlying cause. The problem is our continued acceptance that the govt needs to make laws about everything. Every law has consequences like this. We need to keep removing things from our laws, not keep adding them. The simpler the better.

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  5. Graeme Edgeler (3,289 comments) says:

    We need to keep removing things from our laws, not keep adding them. The simpler the better.

    This is a very simple law. That’s one of the problems with it.

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  6. SPC (5,619 comments) says:

    Rowan does a lovely dead penguin impersonation – and without his feet moving.

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  7. Linda Reid (415 comments) says:

    Graeme… Nicely said. I am totally not offended by that.

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  8. Kea (12,824 comments) says:

    That video is brilliant. This sort of thing keeps my faith in human nature. :)

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  9. orewa1 (410 comments) says:

    Atkinson is one of the funniest people on the planet. The video is a wonderful illustration of the power of humour to influence issues.

    How on earth can any sensible parliament reach the view that to hurt someone’s feelings is a crime? No wonder Britain is sinking without trace?

    Comedians of the world – unite and expose the idiocy of politicians!

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  10. Shunda barunda (2,983 comments) says:

    So people advocate for marriage redefinition on the assumption that a theoretical injustice is occurring, (even though the average homosexual seems completely disinterested in marriage) yet then show outrage that exactly the same logic is resulting in arrests in the UK on a range of lessor ‘issues’?

    Sorry, but that makes no sense.

    Cultural inconsistency will be our down fall, hell, I’ve heard people here say exactly what Mr Atkinson identified as a bullshit statement: “I’m intolerant against intolerance”.

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  11. SPC (5,619 comments) says:

    Actually treating people as equals, regardless of race, religion and gender, sexuality, marital status, employment status and age is what really scares intolerant people. And applying this basic principle of human rights is the act of being entirely consistent.

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  12. David Garrett (7,272 comments) says:

    That man can be hilarious without even trying…

    PaulL: I quite agree…in fact I would go so far as to say every law passed should have a sunset clause requiring it to be debated – like a third reading debate, 12 ten minute speeches or whatever it is – and voted on every 10 years if ten or twenty members require such a debate…I haven’t thought of the fine detail, but I am sure it could be done…there is no lawyer in this land who knows every law which is in force in this country, so what chance has the ordinary citizen?

    Graeme E: If you are still hear I would like to hear your view on that idea…

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  13. David Garrett (7,272 comments) says:

    Oh how embarrassing! “if you are still HERE..” is of course what I meant to write….senior moment there…

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  14. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    Section 5 of the UK’s Public Order Act criminalises speech which is “threatening, abusive or insulting”.
    As usual, of course, the law is only applied to white people.
    The “pet minorities” of the PC elite – Muslims in particular – get a free pass.
    This explain why it is that Muslims can march in the streets of the UK with signs that say “God bless Hitler”, but a bar singer sings “Kung-Fu fighting” and gets arrested.

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  15. David Garrett (7,272 comments) says:

    thor: Are those two scenarios real examples? How in God’s name was ‘kung fu fighting’ offensive – other than musically?

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  16. Shunda barunda (2,983 comments) says:

    Actually treating people as equals, regardless of race, religion and gender, sexuality, marital status, employment status and age is what really scares intolerant people.

    Treating people as equals doesn’t infer a right to the traditions of others or a right to proclaim the institutions of others bigoted unless other people can redefine them.

    There is no valid reason why anyone should be able to demand access to the benevolent traditions or culture of others, or demand punishment when they don’t get their way.

    What really scares me is that these people are heading us in exactly the same direction as Great Brittan.

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  17. SPC (5,619 comments) says:

    I doubt it, there are too many liberals of the left and right here who want nothing to do with censorship of free speech. We won on the drinking age and we will win on that too, if anyone dares propose it.

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  18. scrubone (3,099 comments) says:

    Idiot is prepared to demand in strong terms that the state persecutes people who disagree with him on Section 59, so his credibility on such issues is shot to say the least.

    That people should feel the need to mount a campaign on such matters speaks volumes about the degradation of our society – but so does the law which allows pretty much any parent to be arrested and have their kids removed from them.

    But what do I know, I’m a “bigot” because I think marriage is what the dictionary describes it as being.

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  19. Nick K (1,243 comments) says:

    The Labour Party here would introduce this in a heartbeat. They have championed hate speech laws, and Margaret Wilson is a huge fan of criminal libel. She wanted it introduced when Labour came into office in 1999. We shouldn’t forget this.

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  20. kowtow (8,464 comments) says:

    Here’s an article from the Daily Telegraph on the background to insult and section 5 .In 2009 it was used 18000 times!

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/9264748/Why-should-an-insult-be-against-the-law.html

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  21. SPC (5,619 comments) says:

    Nick, not so much – that a person as well connected within the party could not get this sort of Section 5 concept enacted into law when in ministerial office, then it could be said that Labour had every chance of doing this, but CHOSE NOT to.

    I wonder, if they had a well connected minister such as Joyce or Brownlee promoting it, whether National would do the same?

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  22. thor42 (971 comments) says:

    @David Garrett –
    The “Kung Fu fighting” arrest –
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/8475965/Pub-singers-racism-arrest-over-Kung-Fu-Fighting-performance.html

    A website showing the “God bless Hitler” sign –
    http://www.truthandgrace.com/muslimloveforhitler.htm

    Free speech is dead in Europe and the UK for everyone *except* Muslims.
    The “poor fragile Muslims”, whose CULT must not be criticised in case they get “offended”……

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  23. Graeme Edgeler (3,289 comments) says:

    Thor42:

    Section 5 of the UK’s Public Order Act criminalises speech which is “threatening, abusive or insulting”.

    Nick K:

    The Labour Party here would introduce this in a heartbeat.

    Too late. National beat them to it!

    Section 4 of New Zealand’s Summary Offences Act

    4 Offensive behaviour or language
    (1) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $1,000 who,—
    (a) in or within view of any public place, behaves in an offensive or disorderly manner; or
    (b) in any public place, addresses any words to any person intending to threaten, alarm, insult, or offend that person; or
    (c) in or within hearing of a public place,—
    (i) uses any threatening or insulting words and is reckless whether any person is alarmed or insulted by those words; or
    (ii) addresses any indecent or obscene words to any person.
    (2) Every person is liable to a fine not exceeding $500 who, in or within hearing of any public place, uses any indecent or obscene words.

    That said, while we have National to thank for our version of this law, the passage of the Summary Offences Act in 1981 was the height of liberal law making, because laws like this are much much older than that in New Zealand. For example, the Police Offences Act 1884 made it an offence that anyone who:

    Uses any threatening, abusive, or insulting words or behaviour in any public place within the hearing or in the view of passers by, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace, or whereby a breach of the peace may be occasioned.

    While, for the most part, the Summary Offences Act was a liberal advance in the law – it decriminalised a lot of things: e.g. the law used to make it an offence for anyone who:

    (w) Rolls any cask, beats any carpet, flies any kite, uses any bows and arrows, or catapult, or shanghai, or plays at any game to the annoyance of any person in any public place, or obstructs any public place whether by allowing any cart or
    animal to remain across such public place, or by placing goods thereon, or otherwise; or
    (x) Wantonly or maliciously disturbs any inhabitant by ringing any door-bell, knocking at any door, blowing any horn, beating any drum, using any other noisy instrument in any public place, or ringing any firebell;

    The Summary Offences Act 1981, did however extend the reach of the law around offensive/insulting language, because it didn’t expressly incorporate a requirement that the insulting language be likely to breach the peace.

    And that’s how it was interpretted until last year. In simple terms, there are a couple of reasons, why our law – although strikingly similar to that in the United Kingdom – is not enforced in the same way. Both of which often find disfavour with a many commenters here.

    The first in the Bill of Rights Act, section six of which says to judges: when you’re interpretting laws, if you can interpret them in a way which respects fundamental freedoms (like free speech), please do so.
    The second is Valerie Morse. She appealed her conviction for offensive behaviour all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled (after losses in the three courts below) that actually, the criminal offence around offensive behaviour/offensive language didn’t mean what Courts thought it meant. This was for a couple of reasons, principally, the section 4 offence appears under the heading “Offences against public order”, and the Court said that that meant that the offence could only be committed if your language/behaviour actually threatened public order. Also, it recognises that New Zealand is a country which values things like free speech, particularly political speech, so reasonable New Zealanders aren’t offended or alarmed when people are exercising free speech, even when they strongly disagree with it.

    I couldn’t tell you why the English Courts haven’t done the same thing, given their Human Rights Act, and the European Convention on Human Rights, which largely require the same respect for things like free speech, but they seem not to have, by recent examples.

    kowtow:

    Here’s an article from the Daily Telegraph on the background to insult and section 5. In 2009 it was used 18000 times!

    We don’t do so well by this statistic. Even though we have the above approach to the law, section 4 of the Summary Offences Act (our equivalent) was used 1846 times in 2009 by police. Take account that their population is more than 14 times ours, and 18,000 doesn’t seem like that many! (although I can’t be certain I’m comparing apples with apples)

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  24. SPC (5,619 comments) says:

    Some Moslems believe that threats of violence work – even moderate Moslems who play good cop to the more militant bad cop.

    As Orwell wrote first they rule by fraud and force, then once the fraud is exposed (thus it must be censored), they rule by force alone.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/columnists/chris-trotter/7894758/Political-bullies-inflict-harm-on-New-Zealand

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  25. Graeme Edgeler (3,289 comments) says:

    SPC:

    Nick, not so much – that a person as well connected within the party could not get this sort of Section 5 concept enacted into law when in ministerial office, then it could be said that Labour had every chance of doing this, but CHOSE NOT to.

    As I noted above: you have my apologies for the length of the last comment, which I paraphrase below:

    One reason Labour did not pass a law against using insulting or offensive langauge toward others in public when last in office, is that National passed such a law in 1981, and it is still on the books, and is used by New Zealand Police more often than the UK equivalent on a per capita basis.*

    * caveat attached to that statistic, as I’m not sure what kowtow’s numbers include/exclude.

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  26. SPC (5,619 comments) says:

    GE, thanks for the elaboration of our particular (relative) legal circumstance.

    The extension on the 1981 law that was being proposed in the Wilson era, and at times since, was in relation to the particular form of hate speech – based on race or religion – thus insult to race, national/ethnic identity or religious sensibility.

    It’s sort of “nice” that the HRA is becoming relevant to the exercise of law and effectively mitigating the impost of historic legislation.

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  27. Nookin (3,341 comments) says:

    My recollection is that Wilson promoted a bill making it an offence to tell lies about politicians and actually snuck it into one of the reform bills without any fanfare. It was soon noticed and went no further. Given the predilection for pollies to regard any statement with which they disagreed as a lie, the courts would have been over-flowing.

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  28. Graeme Edgeler (3,289 comments) says:

    Graeme E: If you are still hear I would like to hear your view on that idea…

    I can’t see that it could work, given the way our system of statutes works. I do like the idea, but the consequences of repeal would be really complicated if Parliament ever failed to re-up some piece of legislation.

    Implied repeal can work for very specific one-off acts, but for complex legislation, it would be a nightmare. Imagine if, for example, the Criminal Procedure Act came up for renewal and lost: would the summary proceedings act come back into existence, or would we have nothing? Would subsequent amendments to the CPA made later than 20 years also be undone?Would all the amendments the CPA made to other acts be undone? What if the acts that had been amended by it had been subsequently amended, would this undo all those amendments, even those made very recently? etc etc

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  29. Brian Smaller (4,023 comments) says:

    To defend free speech you have to defend speech you don’t like.

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  30. Urban Redneck (234 comments) says:

    This law has become a very useful too in protecting two distinct groups of British super-citizens who are beyond all reproach and must under no circumstances ever be allowed to be offended – Muslims & homosexuals/sexual eccentrics.

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  31. ChardonnayGuy (1,206 comments) says:

    Uh, newsflash. In New Zealand, there is no LGBT consensus on “hate speech” restrictions. Some of us support them, while others (me included) believe that they constitute an excessive limitation on free speech rights and freedom of expression. It tends to be the case that incivility, hyperbole and crass homophobia tend to do in the antigay lobby if they get screechy, in any case. Except in Australia, but then you expect that lot to get hysterical. Must have something to do with the climate.

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  32. hinamanu (2,352 comments) says:

    “Interestingly the US is currently trialling biometric software that can indeed detect thoughtcrime – it analyses “movement, reflex, facial expression, and reaction.” Designed to detect “terrorists” at large events, they’ve trialled it on crowds at ball park games and the like.

    Isn’t that interesting.”

    Reid, you’re talking conspiracy. How can you expect the sheep on KB to respect you .

    They don’t even know about the banking conspiracy of fractional reserve banking, derivative banking, high frequency algorithm trading. Not to mention the conspiracy of the Libor rigging scandal at Barclays. Even Timothy Geitner told Barclays to tone it down.

    Interestingly, technology isn’t just in the drawing rooms any more. Texas school children are implanted with RFID chips now. All very interesting.

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  33. Harriet (4,969 comments) says:

    Free speech doesn’t need “improving” by the State. Free Speech just is. Or isn’t, as the Left would have it if they got their way.
    Of course, now I understand. Black is white, peace is war, slavery is freedom. It is clear now that, to these people, 1984 is an instruction manual.

    WhinoGuy[chardonnayguy]#

    “….It tends to be the case that incivility, hyperbole and crass homophobia tend to do in the antigay lobby if they get screechy, in any case. Except in Australia, but then you expect that lot to get hysterical. Must have something to do with the climate.

    Contempt is not a phobia, nor is it “hate”. :cool:

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  34. ChardonnayGuy (1,206 comments) says:

    Hey, Australia has far too many squawkback radio outlets, mostly staffed by bigoted geriatric fossils who are an excellent case for the immediate decriminalisation of euthanasia. I’d rather not say in graphic detail what I think about Queensland, except that the words inbred, backward, corrupt, provincial and incompetence occur with regularity.

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  35. Harriet (4,969 comments) says:

    “…..Hey, Australia has far too many squawkback radio outlets, mostly staffed by bigoted geriatric fossils who are an excellent case for the immediate decriminalisation of euthanasia….”

    Idiot.

    Alan Jones supports gay Marriage. Infact, he is very very outspoken on it!

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  36. gopolks (52 comments) says:

    Rowan Atkinson is a genius.

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