Rowan Atkinson has launched a campaign demanding a change in a law that risks limiting free expression and feeds a 'creeping culture of censoriousness'.

Atkinson, whose Blackadder character was famous for his scathing put-downs and pithy comebacks, has criticised Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act which outlaws "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress".

Recent examples of the legislation being used have seen the arrest of a Christian preacher for telling a passer-by that homosexuality was sinful, a 16-year-old boy holding a placard that read "Scientology Is A Dangerous Cult", and a student who called a police horse 'gay'.

atkinson

Atkinson has called for the repealing of the 'insult law'

Addressing the Reform Section 5 parliamentary reception on Wednesday, Atkinson said: "The most precious thing in life I think is food in your mouth and the third most precious is a roof over your head but a fixture in the Number 2 slot for me is free expression, just below the need to sustain life itself.

"The clear problem with the outlawing of insult is that too many things can be interpreted as such. Criticism is easily construed as insult. Ridicule is easily construed as insult.

"Sarcasm, unfavourable comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view can be interpreted as insult."

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Atkinson claims that a "New Intolerance" has arisen out of successive government's well-intentioned attempts to contain "obnoxious" elements of society.

These have inadvertently led to a society of an "extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature."

A key part of the legislation is the use of the phrase "likely to cause", meaning that no-one actually has to be offended for an offence to have taken place.

Police are accused of over-zealously enforcing the law leading to a culture of censorship in the public sphere.

“The law should not be aiding and abetting this new intolerance. Free speech can only suffer if the law prevents us from dealing with its consequences," Atkinson said.

Stephen Fry took to twitter to rustle up support for the move:


Stephen Fry
Insults aren't nice. But should they be illegal? Support my friends in removing “insulting” from public order act

Former shadow home secretary, David Davis, and former chief constable of West Midlands Police, Lord Dear, are also supporting the campaign.

Davis 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."