For many years this freedom has been eroded, with oppressive legislation now the order of the day. In particular, the British Public Order Act, mimicked in New Zealand, was changed to make ‘insulting’ an offence. It has taken a high profile campaign by comedian Rowan Atkinson to remove this oppressive clause from the Act, but sadly it remains in New Zealand under Sections 61 and 131 of the Human Rights Act. This states ‘it is unlawful to promote anything “threatening, abusive, or insulting”, that could create racial disharmony.’ Unless this is removed New Zealand will continue down the path of intolerance.
This excellent article by Muriel Newman of NZ Centre for Policy Research 'Free speech and a gay horse' makes the case for repealing the clause in the Human Rights Act.
“The freedom to criticise or ridicule ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is a fundamental freedom of society. In my view the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended… because one represents openness – and the other represents oppression.”
– British comedian Rowan Atkinson, 2012.
The right of candid expression is the hallmark of an open society. The ability to challenge ideas and the perceived wisdom of the day, in a free and unfettered manner – even at the risk of offending others – is the cornerstone of liberty.
In Britain, the right to offend had been eroded by Section 5 of the Public Order Act. It stated that a person was guilty of an offence if he “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour… or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.”
Through the inclusion of the word “insulting” in Section 5, criminal law had been extended to protect people from having their feelings hurt.
Campaigners argued that the law had created an ‘authoritarian’ and ‘controlling’ society. There was a ‘new intolerance’ – an intense desire to ‘gag’ uncomfortable voices of dissent. However, such issues are not addressed by silencing the opposition through the force of the law, but by airing and debating them in a robust and open manner. Society, they said, needed to toughen up, so as not to take offence at any criticism.
Rowan Atkinson concluded,
“The repeal of this clause will be only a small step, but it will I hope be a critical one in a project to pause and slowly rewind a creeping culture of censoriousness. It is a small skirmish in the battle to deal with what Sir Salman Rushdie refers to as the Outrage Industry: self-appointed arbiters of the public good, encouraging media-stoked outrage, to which the police feel under terrible pressure to react.
So far, we have learnt two important lessons:-
Firstly, that we all have to take responsibility for what we say, which is not a bad lesson to learn.
And secondly, we’ve learnt how appallingly prickly and intolerant society has become of even the mildest adverse comment.”