Section 5 (Public Order Act 1986)

Contributed by Yong Gyum Kim

What do you define as being insulting?

Dependant on the nature of your surroundings and the culture you are used to, the notion of being insulted differs for each and every individual. Thus, in order to establish a common ground the Public Order Act was introduced in 1986, which set out to maintain and uphold the social rights of each citizen. According to section 5 of this act,

(1)A person is guilty of an offence if 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.

This act however has come under great scrutiny in recent times due to the excessive manipulation it has endured; which have resulted in a plethora of controversial arrests and malpractice on the part of the police and prosecutors. For instance, an Oxford University Student in 2006, was apprehended for questioning the sexuality of a horse, and for informing the officer that the mammal was ‘gay.’ He was later charged under this act and taken to court over the matter. Furthermore, a sixteen-year old boy was arrested under the legislation for peacefully holding a placard that read ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult followers of the religious movement.

Freedom of speech is an integral human right that should not be imposed upon, as per stated in the UN Declaration of human rights; every individual should possess the right to voice their thoughts without the fear of being persecuted or penalised.

Thus, the fact that because of this, multitudes of individuals are having to spend countless hours in police cells, and in trial is simply absurd, and it breaches one of the most primitive and fundamental rights that have been given to man.

The rule of law requires that people should be governed by accepted rules, rather than by the arbitrary decisions of rulers. These rules should be general and abstract, known and certain, and apply equally to all individuals.  Thus, even the slightest discretion in judging the soundness of the deed results in the law becoming flawed as for instance, the notion of  ‘insulting’ takes on different definitions when applied to different individuals; therefore this law is too malleable in the conditions of its convictions, and is a menace to one’s liberty .

The law rightly protects us against discrimination, harassment and incitement to violence. It should not be used to protect us from mere insults, and should not impede the right that is Freedom of Speech.

Former shadow home secretary David Davis, a leading campaigner for civil liberties, said reform was ‘vital to protecting freedom of expression in Britain today’.

Indeed the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, states that;

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thus, it is evident that this act and this law needs to be discarded or reformed with immediate effect, for the benefit of the individual, for the benefit of society and for the benefit of mankind.


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