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Rowan Atkinson is demanding a change in the law to halt the ‘creeping culture of censoriousness’ which has seen the arrest of a Christian preacher, a critic of Scientology and even a student making a joke.
The Blackadder and Mr Bean star criticised the ‘new intolerance’ behind controversial legislation which outlaws ‘insulting words and behaviour’.
Launching a fight for part of the Public Order Act to be repealed, he said it was having a ‘chilling effect on free expression and free protest’.
He went on: ‘The clear problem of the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, merely stating an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy, can be interpreted as insult.’
Campaigners say the Public Order Act is being abused by over-zealous police and prosecutors. Section 5 of the 1986 Act outlaws threatening, abusive and insulting words or behaviour, but what constitutes ‘insulting’ is unclear and has resulted in a string of controversial arrests.
A 16-year-old boy was arrested under the legislation for peacefully holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’, on the grounds that it might insult followers of the movement.
Gay rights campaigners from the group Outrage! were arrested under the Act when they protested against the Islamist fundamentalist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was calling for the killing of gays, Jews and unchaste women.
At the Westminster campaign launch, Mr Atkinson said he hoped repeal of Section 5 would be the first step in a project to ‘rewind the culture of censoriousness’ and deal with the ‘outrage industry – self-appointed arbiters of the public good encouraging outrage to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react’.
He added: ‘The law should not be aiding and abetting the new intolerance.’
Mr Atkinson was joined by Lord Dear, former chief constable of West Midlands Police, who plans to lay down a Parliamentary amendment to delete the word ‘insulting’ from the Act.
Lord Dear said: ‘Section 5 wrongly brings the criminal law – and the police who must enforce it – into the realm of debate and dissent.’
Former shadow home secretary David Davis, a leading campaigner for civil liberties, said: ‘The simple truth is that in a free society, there is no right not to be offended.
'For centuries, freedom of speech has been a vital part of British life, and repealing this law will reinstate that right.’
The campaign is backed by unlikely bedfellows The Christian Alliance and The National Secular Society, as well as Big Brother Watch, The Freedom Association and The Peter Tatchell Foundation.