Sammy Wilson has found himself in an unlikely alliance with gay rights campaigners, the Christian Institute and their opponents in the National Secular Society in defence of free speech and the right to cause offence.
Mr Wilson and gay rights advocate Peter Tatchell are among those who have joined a new campaign calling for an end to a law outlawing words deemed insulting or offensive.
The ‘Reform Section 5’ campaign, launched in Westminster yesterday, is calling for the abolition of part of the Public Order Act criminalising words or actions that others may find insulting and are likely to cause offence.
The act has led to a range of controversial cases in the UK which Mr Wilson has described as “absurd”, including the case of a Belfast student who was arrested after asking a mounted police officer if he realised his horse was gay. The East Antrim MP said the act was a “restriction on freedom of speech” and was being “used to prohibit people from expressing their beliefs”.
“I am pleased to lend my support and that of my party to the campaign,” he added.
“We live in a nation with many different people of different religions and different views. People want to express those views and at times others may find them insulting. But as the law stands, even if it is not your intent to insult others, you can still be brought before the courts. This is not how we should operate in a free society.” He added the law had been used by “lazy police officers”.
In 2008, a London teenager was charged for waving a placard which claimed Scientology was a cult. In another case, a 16-year-old was arrested and taken to court for saying ‘woof’ to a labrador dog in front of police.
“This is an absurd waste of police time and this law has been used too liberally,” added Mr Wilson. “This is nothing more than a call for freedom of speech and the alliance which has come together to campaign for the reform of this law demonstrates the support that exists for change.”
Mr Tatchell fell foul of the law while campaigning against a radical fundamentalist group which called for the killing of gay people. His placard citing the murderous actions of Islamist fanatics was deemed insulting by police.
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Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act currently prohibits remarks deemed likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. This has led to several controversial cases in the UK in recent years. In 2006, Sam Brown, an Oxford University student from Belfast, was arrested after he asked a mounted police officer: “Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?” The Crown Prosecution Service later dropped the case.