Rowan Atkinson (Pic: Gerhard Heeke)

A government-supported law criminalising homophobic hate speech in the UK has passed a major hurdle in parliament despite fears that it will limit freedom of speech.

Proponents of free speech and conservative politicians attempted to remove Clause 58 – which outlaw homophobic hate speech – from the Coroners & Justice Bill.

Backed by Mr Bean star Rowan Atkinson and gay actor Christopher Biggin they argued that people could be prosecuted over gay jokes or in debates over homosexuality.

Atkinson said that he feared “a culture of censoriousness, a questioning, negative and leaden attitude that is encouraged by legislation of this nature but is considerably and meaningfully alleviated by the free speech clause.”

“If this legal change really came into practice, there is no doubt it would create a new climate of fear, stifling creativity and restricting the scope for humour. Showbiz, camp theatrics and dazzling wit helped to pave the way for gay rights. They should be cherished, not suppressed,” said Biggins.

The government said however that the law would be applied in a reasonable manner and would not limit speech as long as it did not aim to incite hatred.

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