Free speech: Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said there is no need for a law that makes it a crime to insult someone
There is no need for a law that makes it a crime to insult someone, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said.

In a boost to free-speech campaigners, Keir Starmer QC said it was safe to reform the controversial law that says it is a criminal offence to use 'insulting words or behaviour'.

The clause of the 26-year-old Public Order Act has spurred a campaign which has united gay and secular activists, celebrities and conservative Christian evangelicals in favour of a robust right for people to insult each other.

In October, comedian Rowan Atkinson said the law was having a 'chilling effect on free expression and free protest'.

He warned: '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.'


Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said that 'the longer insults are criminalised, the more people will risk losing their right to freedom of speech'
The Crown Prosecution Service, which Mr Starmer heads, has in the past been against any move to strike the word 'insulting' from the statute book. But the DPP has now changed his mind, the CPS said.

He wrote in a letter to former West Midlands chief constable Lord Dear: 'Having now considered the case law in greater depth, we are unable to identify a case in which the alleged behaviour leading to conviction could not properly be characterised as "abusive" as well as "insulting".

'I therefore agree the word "insulting" could safely be removed without the risk of undermining the ability of the CPS to bring prosecutions.'

However, Mr Starmer added: 'I also appreciate there are other policy considerations involved.'
The indication from the CPS that the law against insult does nothing to protect the public came as a major boost for the campaign to amend the 1986 Public Order Act.

The law was notoriously used in 2005 when an Oxford University student was arrested for saying to a police officer: 'Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?' It has also been used to arrest a Christian preacher in Workington who told a passer-by that he thought homosexuality was sinful.


Comedian Rowan Atkinson said the law was having a 'chilling effect on free expression and free protest'
And teenager Kyle Little was fined £50 in 2007 for 'causing distress' to a pair of labradors by saying 'woof woof' at them within earshot of the police. The case was later quashed on appeal.

Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute think-tank said: 'We hope Home Secretary Theresa May will listen to the country's top prosecutor and agree to reform this overboard and unwanted legislation.'

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: 'This legislation has been on the statue books for 26 years, initially to control football hooligans, major demonstrations and protests such as the miners' dispute.

'But the legislation is now being used to criminalise huge numbers of people for trivial comments.

'In 2009 the police used this law 18,000 times, including against people who were expressing their views or beliefs in a reasonable manner.'