Human rights activist says 'Luton five' verdict threatens free speech

By staff writers
January 12, 2010

Commenting on the guilty verdicts reached yesterday against five Muslim men who demonstrated at a home-coming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton in March 2009, the human rights and green campaigner, Peter Tatchell, has said that their conviction is an infringement of free speech and the right to protest - no matter how offensive their views.

The response came as Home Secretary Alan Johnson announced this morning that Islam4UK, the group which provoked outrage with plans to march through Wootton Bassett, is to be banned under counter-terrorism laws - though this is for their alleged role in promoting terror, rather than their protests.

The Luton men were convicted under the Public Order Act for using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

"I abhor everything they stand for, but defend their right to freedom of expression. Even though what they said was offensive to many people, their right to speak their mind is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society," declared Mr Tatchell.

He continued: "I strongly disagree with these men and their fanatical, fundamentalist religion. They seek to establish an Islamist dictatorship in the UK. I reject the hatred and religious tyranny they espouse. But I defend their right to express their opinions, even though they are offensive and distressing to many people."

"They want to destroy our democracy and freedoms," he said. "I want to defend these values. But if we silence and criminalise their views, we are little better than them."

Tatchell said: "Judge Carolyn Mellanby was wrong to rule that the people of Luton have a right to be protected against words they find insulting. Some of the greatest minds in history have caused insult and offence, including Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin.

"Insult and offence are not sufficient grounds in a democratic society to criminalise words and actions.

"The criminalisation of insulting, abusive or offensive speech is wrong. The only words that should be criminalised are untrue defamations and threats of violence, such as falsely branding someone as a paedophile or inciting murder.

"Some sections of the Public Order Act inhibit the right to free speech and the right to protest. They should be repealed," he said.

"Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I also defend the right of these objectionable Muslim extremists to make their views heard.

"The best way to respond to these fanatics is expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions.
Rational argument is more effective and ethical than using an authoritarian law to censor and suppress them," concluded Mr Tatchell.

At the end of 2009 Peter Tatchell announced that he was having to stand down as Green prospective parliamentary candidate for the Oxford East constituency as a result of brain injuries sustained as a result of brutal beatings from Zimbabwean President Mugabe's security operatives, and from neo-Nazis during an attempted Gay Pride parade in Moscow.

"The injuries don't stop me from campaigning but I am slower, make more mistakes, get tired easily and take longer to do things. My memory, concentration, balance and coordination have been adversley affected," said Mr Tatchell - adding that he felt that if elected he would not be able to fully discharge his responsibilities as an MP.

Caroline Lucas MEP, the leader of the Green Party, said: "Peter is one of those truly inspiring people. It has been a great pleasure and privilege to work with him. I'm sure I can speak for all Greens in sending Peter our thanks and congratulations for his tremendous work as a Green Party candidate, and our very best wishes."

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