The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has dropped all charges against a Christian street preacher who condemned homosexuality, shortly after the gay rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, offered to testify in defence of his right to free speech.
Mr Dale McAlpine, aged 42, was arrested in a street in Workington on 20 April 2010, after condemning homosexuality. He was charged with using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress, contrary to the Public Order Act 1986.
But gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, who was once a church Sunday school teacher but is now an atheist, stood up for Mr McAlpine on the grounds of free speech - and now appears to have helped him escape charges.
"Although I disagree with Dale McAlpine and support protests against his homophobic views, he should not have been arrested and charged. Criminalisation is a step too far," said Mr Tatchell today.
"Despite my opposition to his opinions, I defend his right to freedom of expression," he added.
Tatchell added: "Soon after I offered to appear as a defence witness and to argue in court for Mr McAlpine's acquittal, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case. The sudden withdrawal of charges may have been mere coincidence, but perhaps not.
"Mr McAlpine should have never been prosecuted in the first place. While the arresting officer may have acted with well-meaning intentions, he was over-zealous and interpreted the law in a harsh, authoritarian manner."
Mr Tatchell said that although he regarded Mr McAlpine as "clearly homophobic", he "did not express his opinion in a way that was aggressive, threatening or intimidating."
The human rights campaigner, who had to stand down as a Green Party election candidate after sustaining brain damage following attacks following protests against persecution of gay people in Zimbabwe and Russia, said: "I am surprised and shocked that the CPS allowed the case to proceed at all. The Public Order Act is meant to protect people from harm. Dale McAlpine's views are misguided and offensive but I see no evidence that they caused harm to anyone.
"I urge the Home Secretary, Theresa May, to issue new guidelines, making it clear that the police should not arrest people for expressing prejudiced views in a non-threatening and non-aggressive manner. Prosecutions should only proceed in extreme circumstances. The police should concentrate on tackling serious, harmful crimes, such as racist, homophobic and sexist violence.
"Causing offence to others is not a legitimate basis for putting a person on trial. 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 means accepting the right of other people to say things that we may find disagreeable and even offensive. Unless people make untrue libellous comments or incite violence, they should not be criminalised for expressing their opinions," concluded Mr Tatchell.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia, commented: "Freedom of speech, in spite of offence or irresponsible rhetoric, is vital to a healthy society. Many Christians - alongside people of other faiths and none - will deplore the kind of views expressed by Mr McAlpine, but will also rigorously oppose attempts to criminalise them.
He added: "In the Gospel accounts, the founder of Christianity - who strongly condemned the misuse of religion as a means of oppressing people - encouraged his friends and supporters to love their enemies, to do good to those who directed hate at them and to bless those who cursed them. Peter Tatchell, who has deep atheist convictions, has nonetheless shown Christians the way forward at a time when many are keen to talk up offence, to claim they are being marginalised and to use the law to suppress views they do not like.
"It would be good to see church and religious organisations similarly speaking out for people like Harry Taylor, who was recently sentenced to six months in prison (suspended for two years) for leaving anti-religious cartoons in an airport prayer room - in a case which should similarly disturb all who value open expression."