Where do we draw the line between religious freedom and free speech on the one hand, and public order and the protection of minorities on the other hand? Should people of faith have the right to express views that others find offensive and bigoted?
Christian street preacher Dale Mcalpine last month won £7,000 in damages, following his arrest and detention by the police in April 2010 for saying homosexuality is a sin. He had expressed his beliefs to passers-by in Workington, Cumbria. As a result, he was charged with making "threatening, abusive or insulting" remarks, contrary to the Public Order Act. A court case was pending, but was dropped. Instead, he was offered an apology by the Chief Constable, and compensation.
As a campaigner for gay rights, I disagree with Mr Mcalpine’s intolerant views. But as a defender of free speech, I endorse his right to express them. Indeed, I had offered to testify in his defence, had his case gone to court.
Freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. Mr Mcalpine’s views were homophobic, but the fact that he was treated as a criminal for expressing them, shocked me. The officer who arrested him, although doubtless well-intentioned, interpreted the law in a harsh, authoritarian manner. Mr Mcalpine was not aggressive, threatening or intimidating. He did not incite violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people; unlike some extremist Christians in Uganda and Nigeria.
The Public Order Act is intended to protect people from harm. Mr Mcalpine’s views – although they are misguided and offensive – caused no injury or damage to anyone. His intolerant views should be challenged but he should not have been arrested.
Contrast his case with my experience. In 1994, the Islamist fundamentalist group Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) held a mass rally at Wembley Arena. Its members advocated killing gay people and ‘unchaste’ women. They heaped hatred and abuse on Jews and Hindus. Together with five of my colleagues from the gay rights group OutRage!, I staged a peaceful, lawful counter-protest. It was six of us against 6,000 of them. Some members of HT threatened: “We will track you down and kill you.”
Despite these criminal incitements to murder us, they were not arrested. We were. Our free speech was denied. We were charged under the Public Order Act. In contrast to Mr Mcalpine’s case, the police did not drop the charges and apologise, let alone compensate us. It took nearly two years of lengthy, costly legal battles for me to finally win an acquittal.
I have long been passionate in my support for anyone who gets victimised by the authorities for expressing their views – even objectionable ones – providing they do so in a peaceable way and don’t advocate violence. Bigoted views should be rebutted by debate and protest, not by criminalisation.
This is why in 2006 I opposed the prosecution of Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the then General Secretary of the Muslim Council of Britain. He suggested, on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, that gay people were unacceptable, immoral, harmful and diseased. This was disgraceful bigotry from anyone, let alone from a faith leader. There were calls for him to be arrested. But since Sir Iqbal had not advocated violence, I urged the police to leave him alone. Instead, I spoke out, explaining why his intolerant views were inaccurate and unethical. I won the argument. The police decided to not charge him.
A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence, and some of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused a huge religious offence in their time.
Freedom of speech includes the right to criticise and mock, and to say things that many of us find offensive. I deplore the fact that millions of people around the world live with the threat of arrest, torture, imprisonment - and even execution - for expressing ideas that dissent from political and religious orthodoxy. This is why I have consistently defended the human rights of persecuted Christians in Pakistan and victimised Sunni Muslims in Iran, as well as hounded political dissidents in Russia and Zimbabwe.
Precisely the same logic underpins my reason for supporting Mr Mcalpine – and condemning the conviction and £1,000 fine imposed on another Christian street preacher, Shawn Holes, who was arrested in Glasgow early in 2010.
Mr Holes, an American Baptist evangelist touring Britain, told passers-by that, "Homosexuals deserve the wrath of God – and so do all sinners – and they are going to a place called hell." In court, he admitted breaching the peace by making homophobic remarks. He plainly distressed some people with his anti-gay tirade. But should he have been prosecuted? I believe not. In a democratic society, his arrest was wrong and the fine was totally disproportionate. Even people who commit robberies and violent assaults have been known to get off with lighter penalties. It was, in my view, an inappropriate use of the law.
Just as gay people should have the right to criticise religion, people of faith should also have the right to criticise homosexuality. When it comes to expressions of opinion, only threats and incitements to violence - and damaging libels - should be prosecuted. The police should concentrate on tackling serious crimes, instead of wasting public money on petty, distasteful religious ranters.
This is why I urge the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to issue new guidelines, making it clear that the police should not arrest people like Dale Mcalpine and Shawn Holes. Causing offence to others is not a legitimate basis for putting a person on trial. After all, nearly everyone holds opinions that someone else might find offensive. If offending others is accepted as a basis for prosecution, most of the population of the UK would end up in court.
Freedom of speech includes accepting the right of other people to say things that we may find disagreeable and even offensive. It also involves keeping a sense of perspective. When Anne Robinson denigrated the Welsh – as she did last year when she suggested they should be kicked out of their country and replaced by Liverpudlians – should we really expend our efforts protesting against a throwaway remark, when we could be campaigning against major human rights abuses, such as those in China, Iraq, Burma and Saudi Arabia?
There are, of course, occasions when personal views should be set aside for the sake of avoiding discrimination and maintaining harmonious community relations. The Christian hoteliers, Peter and Hazelmary Bull, in 2008 refused to let gay civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy share a room. On religious grounds, they did not want gay couples – or any non-married couples - to sleep together in their hotel.
I defend the Bulls’ right to hold and express these views. If they chose to propagate them in the street, that’s their right to free speech. But if they are offering a service to the public by providing hotel accommodation, they should provide this service to all the public, without discrimination against anyone for any reason. If we allow them to forbid gay couples – and unmarried heterosexual partners – to sleep in the same room, a deluge of similar claims for exemption from the equality laws is likely to ensue.
We could have some Muslim and Jewish supermarket workers refusing to handle pork and some Christian solicitors declining to represent gay or Hindu clients – because of their religious beliefs. The world of business would grind to a halt, and civility decline, as various special interest groups demanded the right to discriminate. Our equality laws would soon be in tatters. Discrimination would become rampant again. No, thank you. I defend freedom of expression but not when it results in discrimination.
Free speech is precious. Only damaging libellous comments and incitements to violence should be crimes.
Let’s not forget that generations of people suffered to win us the right to freedom of expression; people like the martyred Bible translator William Tyndale and the jailed Chartist leader William Lovett.
It was Tyndale, a 16th century scholar and translator, who defied church and state by making the Bible more widely accessible to ordinary people, translating it into English. This incurred the wrath of both the Pope and Henry VIII – he also opposed the King’s divorces. Tyndale was accused of heresy and treason. Henry VIII had him executed.
Three centuries later, Lovett was a Chartist leader who demanded votes for working class people. Although his protests were peaceful, he was arrested for ‘riot’ and jailed for 12 months in 1839 on a trumped-up charge of seditious libel. He died in poverty.
We owe it to Lovett and Tyndale – and to the many other proponents of free speech who have succeeded them – to defend the right of people to express their opinions, even when we disagree with what they say.
© Peter Tatchell has been campaigning for human rights for over 40 years. To find out more about his campaigns, or to make a donation, go to his website at http://www.petertatchell.net.