Free speech for queers – and homophobes
Harry Hammond is a bigot but he has a right to express his misguided views
London – 2 May 2002
Peter Tatchell defends a Christian evangelist convicted of homophobic insults, arguing that freedom of speech must be defended - even when the sentiments expressed are offensive:
A 69 year old Christian street preacher in Bournemouth, Harry Hammond, was fined £300 in April 2002. His crime? Displaying a placard with the words: "Stop Immorality. Stop Homosexuality. Stop Lesbianism".
Mr Hammond is a bigot, and his prejudice should be challenged. But to criminalise his opinions is a step too far. Using totalitarian methods to defend the lesbian and gay community can never be justified. If we want the freedom to express our support for gay rights, then we must also respect the right of others to express a contrary view.
According to the magistrate, Mr Hammond’s placard was "abusive, threatening or insulting" and therefore "criminal" under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Well that’s one interpretation of a very sweeping, misguided law.
In fact, Mr Hammond's placard merely stated his opinion. In a free society isn’t that his right?
His placard certainly was homophobic and offensive. That is not, however, a legitimate reason to suppress Mr Hammond's right to free speech and peaceful protest, and to turn him into a criminal.
His conviction sets an alarming precedent. If we tolerate this denial of free speech, where will it end? Who will be criminalised next?
The police and courts should protect the gay community from discriminatory and violent behaviour – not from ideas and opinions. Muzzling free speech is a step too far.
One of the defining features of a free society is a willingness to tolerate views that are offensive and insulting. Once we start restricting what people can say, where do we stop? Who decides what is an acceptable opinion?
Freedom of speech is so precious that it must be defended - even when we disagree with the sentiments expressed. Other than damaging libel and incitements to violence, there is no justification for criminalising words and opinions. Mr Hammond's placard did not libel anyone or threaten violence. Nor was it abusive or particularly insulting.
His conviction sets a dangerous precedent, giving police and judges a green light to suppress dissenting, unpopular views. On this occasion the law has been used against a religious person attacking homosexuality. Next time it could be used against a gay person criticising religion. Once we start limiting free expression, where do we draw the line?
My respect for the right to dissent compels me to offer Mr Hammond my support. Although I don’t agree with his ideas, I do agree with his right to express them. When he appeals, I will testify in favour of his conviction being overturned.
My sympathy for Mr Hammond's civil rights is compounded by the fact that I, too, have been a victim of the Public Order Act.
In 1994, at Wembley Arena, I was arrested for a silent, peaceful protest outside a rally of 6,000 Islamic fundamentalists. They were, among other violent incitements, advocating the murder of gay people. Some threatened to kill me.
I was charged under the Public Order Act for displaying a placard that read: 'Islam Nazis behead and burn queers'. This was a reference to the brutal methods advocated by some Islamist fundamentalists for the execution of lesbians and gay men.
The prosecution alleged that my placard was "threatening, abusive or insulting" to Muslims and was likely to cause them "harassment, alarm or distress".
At my trial, the charge was eventually dismissed. But by then I had already been punished. My right to protest had been curtailed and police detention deprived me of my liberty for several hours. As in the case of Mr Hammond, I was denied my right to free speech.
The freedom to express our opposition to homophobia has been crucial to the gay community’s success in changing public opinion and winning law reforms like the equalisation of the age of consent. Where would we be today if earlier queer generations had not had the right to dispute and dissent? They used this freedom to benefit our community.
Mr Hammond is misguided and intolerant. But that is his right. True freedom of speech means freedom for queers – and for homophobes. The best way to undermine bigotry is reasoned argument, not the suppression of our opponent’s human rights.
* Peter Tatchell is a contributor to The Hate Debate - Should Hate Be Punished As A Crime?, Editor Paul Iganski, Profile Books.
Click here to return to the Religion Index