Dispatches from the Creation Wars

England’s Free Speech Problem – Again

I swear, England is trying their damnedest to make anti-gay rhetoric sound rational and accurate. They’re prosecuting a minister for handing out leaflets with Bible verses on them at a gay Mardi Gras event, for nothing other than handing them out:

A police force was caught up in a freedom of speech row after its officers arrested an anti-gay campaigner for handing out leaflets at a homosexual rally.

South Wales police admitted evangelical Christian Stephen Green was then charged purely because his pamphlets contained anti-gay quotations from the Bible.

Mr Green faces a court appearance today charged with using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ after his attempt to distribute the leaflets at the weekend ‘Mardi Gras’ event in Cardiff.

A spokesman for the police said the campaigner had not behaved in a violent or aggressive manner, but that officers arrested him because ‘the leaflet contained Biblical quotes about homosexuality’.

We hear constantly from the religious right in this country that the “radical homosexual agenda” is out to destroy their freedom of speech. Thank goodness that our first amendment provides much stronger protection for free speech than many of our allies. Still, this is becoming such a frequent event in Europe and Canada that I’m beginning to think they’ve got a reason to be paranoid about this. I am obviously a staunch advocate of gay rights, but some of the people who claim to be on the same side need to get something through their skulls: you do not have a right to never encounter the opposition of disapproval of others.

If people think that being gay is sinful and evil, they have every right to say so. They have every right to tell you that to your face in most situations, and they certainly have the right to publish their opinions, express them in public, try to convince others of them, write letters to the editor about it, write books about it, preach it to their followers. In short, they have precisely the same right to express their opposition that you and I have to express our support. And if we do not stand up for their liberty, we do not deserve ours.

If you believe that you have freedom of speech, then you have an obligation to support freedom of speech even for those whose ideas make you angry. That obligation is both moral and practical, because if the government has the power to deny their freedom of speech, then they have the authority to deny ours as well. Our liberties are only safe when we defend them even when they are exercized by those who advocate ideas that we pour our souls into opposing. And we can only make a principled argument for our own liberty if we are willing to make the same argument for the liberty of those we oppose.

For liberty, when one ascends to the levels where ideas swish by and men pursue Truth to grab her by the tail, is the first thing and the last thing. So long as it prevails the show is thrilling and stupendous; the moment it fails the show is a dull and dirty farce. HL Mencken


  1. #1 qetzal
    September 9, 2006

    Well said. I’m amazed and greatly disappointed to see that using “insulting words” is apparently a punishable behavior in England.

  2. #2 kehrsam
    September 9, 2006

    Amazing, the Bible is now illegal in Wales. If your quotes are from the Authorized Version, do you think they’ll charge Lizzie?

  3. #3 Chris Hyland
    September 9, 2006

    Unfortuantely in Britain we don’t have any freedom of speech laws to speak of, and it was only due to a revolt by Tony Blair’s own party that the law making it illegal to insult peoples religion didn’t get through commons. Unfotuantely the idea that people who we find insulting shouldn’t be allowed a public voice is a fairly popular one. I would say that we were the most politically correct country in the world if it wasn’t for Germany’s holocaust denial laws (which I suspect we will be forced to accept by the EU in the not too distant future).

  4. #4 ompus
    September 9, 2006

    I’m a pro-fag atheist… and I support Fred Phelp’s right to peaceable protest. How sad for England.

  5. #5 ompus
    September 9, 2006

    My previous post may be too obtuse. I’ll say it straight. I strongly support gay rights. I strongly reject the bible and the concept of god. But I just as strongly support the right of people to peacebly protest against gay rights based upon their belief in bible and god.

  6. #6 Laurence Powers
    September 9, 2006

    Your confusing me – this wasn’t in England, this was in Wales. Shouldn’t you say ‘Britain’s Free Speech Problem – Again’.

  7. #7 The Ridger
    September 9, 2006

    Unfortunately, many Americans think England and UK/Britain are interchangeable terms.

  8. #8 SLC
    September 9, 2006

    As Voltaire said, “I disagree with everything you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

  9. #9 Todd
    September 9, 2006

    Although I’m personally in favor of radical free speech, I think it might be helpful to remember that the court systems and legistlatures in many European countries and in Canada have defined hate speech as harmful, in a democratic sense, and that although we may disagree with their position on the matter, that it is a tenable one in a democracy. The arguments aren’t actually as stupid as they may seem to those of us in a free-wheeling American free-speech environment. Again, I am not fully convinced that their position is workable in practice (I tend to fall on the J.S. Mills side of free speech).

    The basic argument is that if the goal of a democracy is to allow for the self-actualization of as many of its citizens as possible; and if that goal demands free and equal participation in the public sphere, and if hate speech creates social; cultural and psychological environments wherein the free and equal pariticipation of certain segments of the citizenry are foreclosed; then hate speech is not protected speech in a democracy. (In my classroom, I outlaw hate speech for pedagogical reasons.)

    As a gay man who used to live in Kansas, I can tell you that hearing homophobic rhetoric and seeing Fred Phelps on a daily basis does indeed have a dramatic impact on how you live your life in the public sphere. You have to make decisions about where you can go, what you wear, who you’re with, how you behave, etc. It results in a kind of internalized self-monitoring that is antithetical to “freedom.”

    The problem with this reasoning against hate speech, in my opinion, is when you come up against these clashing interests, as we see in England. The same logic that was motivating the proposed law to control ‘insulting language’ against religion is that which motivated the arrest of this irritating little evangelical preacher. Drawing the hate speech line gets incredibly messy and in my opinion nearly impossible in practice. I would argue that it probably would have been appropriate to remove the reverend from the gay event and let him hand out his literature at the edge or gate (even in America, Fred Phelps has distance limits and must not impede or interfere with the events he protests).

    But I do admire their efforts to create a society where people are psychologically free from a dominant culture that symbolically oppresses unwanted minorities. In the United States, we refuse to even have that discussion in the first place.

    Incidentally, social psychologists have been studying this kind of symbolic oppression and its psychological effects for 50 years now.

  10. #10 Todd
    September 9, 2006

    To ompus:

    The “right to peacefully protest” I think was actually at issue here. In the late 1980s, ACT UP protestors were arrested for staging a “die in” during mass in New York City. That is a limit on their speech. Should a reverend be able to go into a gay event, which should be a safe space for queers, and hand out anti-gay literature? I think not.

  11. #11 Russell
    September 9, 2006

    Todd writes, “Although I’m personally in favor of radical free speech, I think it might be helpful to remember that the court systems and legistlatures in many European countries and in Canada have defined hate speech as harmful, in a democratic sense, and that although we may disagree with their position on the matter, that it is a tenable one in a democracy.”

    I would argue that these laws endanger democracy. While it is easy for us to look at the specific hate laws in question, and say that that kind of speech isn’t necessary to democratic debate, that stance is not too far from the Muslim who makes a very similar argument for laws against blasphemy. The next step down that road are laws that ban un-Islamic speech.

    Modern tyrannies do not maintain themselves by by banning elections, but instead by privileging some viewpoints, while excluding others. Elections are held in Iran. They were held in the old Soviet Union. They are held in Cuba. Where all those governments fail to be democracies is a different area: the control of viewpoint. There is no democracy where people can be arrested or organizations banned or candidates disqualified for taking the wrong stance, whether that is speech against Islam, or against the revolution, or against the communist party. In short, freedom of speech is not merely a consequence of democracy, but a prerequisite to democracy.

    Now, yeah, the limits on speech in Wales are not as broad in scope nor severe in nature as those in Iran or Cuba. They are tied more to a vague political correctness than to a specific governing philosophy. That doesn’t mean we should condone them, or even allow that they are simply another law, one that doesn’t go to the groundwork of what we mean by liberal democracy. They are illiberal, and they are a step away from an open society. A small step. But a dangerous direction.

  12. #12 kehrsam
    September 9, 2006


    In this case, Mr. Green (the defendant) left the festival upon being asked. He was arrested for handing out leaflets outside the gate of the venue where the festival was being held. He is not even being prosecuted for anything he said, merely for the content of his pamphlet, which was primarily verses from the AV. Tell me, where, exactly, was the hate speech?

    If Mr. Green can be arrested for this, then there is no protection from arbitrary arrest for anyone, any time. What do you imagine Jow Lieberman would do if he had that kind of power?

  13. #13 Russell
    September 9, 2006

    First, it’s religious pamphlets. Then, it’s garden gnomes:


    This does not bode well. 😉

  14. #14 Philip T.
    September 9, 2006

    Hi Ed,

    As a Canadian, I agree with you. We Canukleheads should be more open and less restrictive in our legal approach to free speech.

    I hear Todd’s points re hate speech creating an environment in which people self-censor and / or make themselves invisible. I don’t have an easy answer, except perhaps “strength in numbers.” In Vancouver, where I live, there’s a large gay pride parade each year, which is well attended by gays and straights alike. We have our own small version of San Fran’s gay village. Gays are pretty high profile here – holding hands in public, and generally behaving as straight couples would (and yet the city hasn’t been swept into the nearby sea or hit with locusts:-) Yes, there are still gay bashings (including a fatal one a few years ago.) But folks are refusing to be pushed back in the closet. Not an easy solution in a small town, I know – it would take great courage to be the first on the front line, the Rosa Parks as it were, not knowing what the reaction would be, and how many, if any, folks will step up to the barricades with you.

    There will always be those who abuse free speech, and who dance artfully back and forth across the line between free speech and making threats/inciting violence. I was living in Toronto back when Canada was playing involuntary host to Ernst Zundel, that slimely holocaust denier. I lived in the same neighbourhood as his fortified fhurer-bunker wannabee. His neo brownshirts wore badges and carried flags with stylized double Z that was clearly intended to invoke both the SS logo and the swastika. The Jewish Anti-defamation Leage put tremendous pressure on the Canadian government to prosecute Zundel, which eventally happened. I can certainly sympathize with why they would – to a holocaust survivor, which there were many more of the 1980s, the sight of uniformed anti-semites holding their rallys and parades would have looked dreadfully familar. I could imagine them thinking: “Never again. We’re not going to make the mistake of doing nothing again – this time we’re going to nip it in the bud.” So I understood the motivation, but disagreed with hounding Zundel for both moral and tatical reasons. Morally for all the reasons others have noted above. Tatically because it was a losing strategy: it gave Zundel a soapbox and made him a martyr who could claim to be a victim of “international Zionism.” etc.

    In all but extreme cases, the solution for speech you find hateful is not less speech, but more – including a mix of facts, reason, and mockery, tailored to your audience.

  15. #15 James Allen
    September 9, 2006

    just wanted to say, well said

  16. #16 wales_is_not_in_england
    September 9, 2006

    Police everywhere daily make arrests based on personal interpretation of laws there is nothing new or blogworthy there. Remember, he hasn’t been convicted yet so don’t be too eager to announce the end of free speech just yet. The result of the court case will be far more interesting and important. Free speech isn’t absolute, the question is whether the context of his actions infringed any rights of those at the mardis-gras whom were being called ‘abominations’. It’s probably a good thing that this is coming to court as this gray area may well be less gray as a result and police will know more about who they can and can’t arrest than they did before. Which will only be a good thing (with the right result of course)

  17. #17 Philip T.
    September 9, 2006

    Thanks, James. Nice writing re 9/11 on your site too.

  18. #18 Ted
    September 9, 2006

    They’ve had this law in effect since 1986 and various people have used it to avoid being harassed and annoyed.

    It’s a compliance point for the ECHR, a Council of Europe document.

  19. #19 Ginger Yellow
    September 9, 2006

    To be honest, it’s not even political correctness. I’ve seen people get arrested at football matches for swearing at the opposing fans. The only explanation I could come up with was that they were swearing on their own, rather than as part of a chant.

  20. #20 Ted
    September 9, 2006

    Their history of taking no crap from religious provocateurs is firmly established and reconfirmed.

    But they are equal opportunity about it. Lack of religion is treated as religion for the purposes of aggravation.

  21. #21 Carol
    September 10, 2006

    I don’t have much time, so I’ll make this quick. In ‘England’ not ‘Wales’ and specifically in my city there has been an ongoing problem with gangs of skinheads turning up at the gay rights walks through the city over the past couple of years. The gangs specific aim is to provoke a violent confrontation. And guess what, if I had never been present during these walks, I would never had known about the gangs being there, because it isn’t reported in the local or national news, at least I have never seen it reported.
    I’m not defending the police, but things are never as clear cut as they may appear.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    September 10, 2006

    For the several people who pointed it out, yes this was Wales and not England, but it’s the same government and the same law. The point remains precisely the same.

    wales_is_not_England wrote:

    Free speech isn’t absolute, the question is whether the context of his actions infringed any rights of those at the mardis-gras whom were being called ‘abominations’.

    The answer to that question is quite easy: no. No one – absolutely no one – has a right not to be offended or bothered by the views of others. A gay person’s rights are no more violated by someone else’s expressions of disapproval than my rights are when people call me a sinner and a horrible person. I have no right to have my feelings protected and neither do you. And the person who handed out those flyers has no right to be protected from being called a bigoted asshole.


    I don’t care how long it’s been going on, it’s wrong. I don’t care that you want to label it “taking no crap from religious provocateurs”, it does not change the reality of the situation one little bit. They violated this man’s free speech rights.


    This man was not a skinhead and by the police’s own admission, he did not threaten anyone or act out in any way. He wasn’t even expressing himself verbally, he was just putting flyers on cars and handing them out.

    To all those who continually answer my posts in this regard by arguing that free speech is not absolute: no kidding. But this is an utterly useless argument. What you have to show is that this restriction on free speech is legitimate, not that some other restriction on free speech might be. And you can’t do that, not in this case. This law should be done away with.

  23. #23 Tulle
    September 10, 2006

    It is just a easy to say you can’t say that being gay is ok as it is to say you can’t. Once you make one rule about what speech is not allowed then is becomes all the eaiser to ban the next. I am gay and I want those that are agianst me to speak up so that I know who they are. I would fight for this man’s right to say I am sinful, so that I can say he is wrong.

  24. #24 Tom
    September 10, 2006

    “What you have to show is that this restriction on free speech is legitimate”
    I guess this will be debated to the full during the court case. The prosecution itself admitted before the court that the case raises human rights issues.

    “This law should be done away with.”
    Which law do you refer to? Is it just this single interpretation of the act or the section as a whole that you disapprove of?

  25. #25 David Durant
    September 10, 2006

    As a Brit I’ve never agreed with with the theory that “less speech” is a good way to deal with any problem.

    The question is – are their any MPs who are willing to stand up and say this kind of thing is wrong? If so who are they and how can we lend them our support?

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