Liberal Hero of the Week #19: Rowan Atkinson

by Stephen Tall on October 26, 2012

ImageWelcome to the 19th in our series, Liberal Hero of the Week, chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. ’Liberal Heroes’ showcases those who promote the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — highlighting individuals regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism then they’re in contention.

Rowan Atkinson

Actor, writer and comedian.
Reason: For defending free speech and the right to offend.

One of the most famous Not The Nine O’Clock News sketches is a parody of the outrage that greeted Life Of Brian, in which a film by the General Synod about the life of Christ is seen a “thinly disguised and blasphemous attack on the life of Monty Python”. If you’ve not seen it, enjoy. If you have, enjoy it again…

One of the stars of that video, Rowan Atkinson, is also the face of a new campaign that seeks to roll back a 25 year-old piece of legislation — section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 — which outlaws insulting words and behaviour which could cause “harassment, alarm or distress”. In particular, the legislation includes the phrase “likely to cause”, which means that no-one actually has to be offended for a criminal offence to have taken place.

Why after a quarter of century, you might ask — a quarter of a century when free speech has generally been maintained in this country — is this campaign thought necessary? Because, like so much government legislation, it can create unintended (and bizarre) consequences. As Conservative MP David Davis wrote this week:

This ludicrous degree of latitude has seen a teenager fined for saying “woof” to a dog, a protestor charged for calling Scientology a “cult” and a student spend a night in the cells for calling a horse “gay”. These stories are almost too daft to believe. That is why they received the media attention and public ridicule which eventually forced the authorities to drop the charges. But for those arrested, such heavy-handed action is a stressful ordeal. And what about those less media-friendly examples which go unnoticed? Put simply, cracking down on threatening behaviour is a vital duty. Punishing mere insults is a serious restriction on free speech.

The Reform Section 5 Campaign has a clear aim: to remove the word “insulting” from section 5. This simple snip means the law will still protect citizens against threatening or abusive behaviour. But it also means the law will also uphold the values of free speech that allow campaigners, preachers and activists to say what they want how they want. The Liberal Democrats had already, before the Campaign’s launch, passed a conference motion that goes further, calling for the full repeal of Section 5.

The Campaign has assembled a wide-ranging group of supporters spanning The Christian Institute to the National Secular Society. Campaign groups including Big Brother Watch, The Peter Tatchell Foundation and The Freedom Association have all signed up. You can find out more about how you can take action here.

People often refer now to the ‘outrage industry’, the increasing tendency to take offence when someone says something you don’t agree with in terms you don’t like. To which the only response is ‘Tough’. Or as Eminem once pithily rapped, ‘You find me offensive? I find you offensive for finding me offensive.’ Where you disagree, take your opponent to task, don’t simply cower behind the cover of being offended and expect government to step in on your behalf.

But I’ll leave the last word to Rowan Atkinson, this week’s Liberal Hero