Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Peter Tatchell, champion of free speech

It seems that charges against Dale McAlpine, the street preacher who was arrested under the Public Order Act 1986 after telling a PCSO that homosexuality was a sin, have been dropped.

I would be very interested to know why the charges were dropped. A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service is quoted as having said "We keep cases under constant review and following a further review of all the evidence in this case we were no longer satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and we have therefore discontinued the proceedings against Mr Mcalpine," but this doesn't tell me much. The crucial words appear to be "no longer satisfied." Why did they initially believe that there was sufficient evidence? What changed their minds? I'd really like to know, but I doubt that we will ever be told.

Peter Tatchell believes that his own intervention might have been a significant factor. Despite the fact that Mr Tatchell strongly (to put it mildly) disagrees with Mr McAlpine's opinion, he offered to testify in defence of his right to free speech. “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. Despite my opposition to his opinions, I defend his right to freedom of expression. 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.

To which I say "Well done, Mr. Tatchell." It's not often these days that we hear of people defending the freedom to express opinions they disagree with. The spirit of the age seems to be much more enthusiastic about banning people from expressing offensive opinions. And this is not the first time that Mr. Tatchell has spoken up for freedom of speech. He recently criticised the fine of £1000 imposed on Shawn Holes, an American street preacher who was convicted of "uttering homophobic remarks" in Glasgow.

There is, however, something else that fascinates me. Mr. McAlpine was charged under the Public Order Act with “using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.” Many people will recall an incident in which Mr. Tatchell could conceivably have been charged himself under those terms. In 1998, On Easter Sunday, 12th. April 1998, Peter Tatchell entered the pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral during the Archbishop’s sermon, and started addressing the congregation. He was charged with "indecent behaviour in a church", contrary to section 2 of the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act, but was aquitted.

Why Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act and the not the Public Order Act? I don't know. I suspect that it is because Mr Tatchell's behaviour undoubtedly caused some distress, he was, careful to ensure that while his words were not "threatening, abusive or insulting."

Which, I guess, means the legal question is "Were Mr McAlpine's words threatening, abusive or insulting?"

The political question, however, is this: Why do we have a law on our statute book which means that someone can be guilty of a crime simply for using "insulting" words within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused "distress"?

One for Nick Clegg, I think.

Edit: Thank you to Albert for pointing me toward this fascinating video of Dale McAlpine's arrest.

Note the quote from the constable making the arrest: "It is against the law. Listen mate, we're pretty sure. You're under arrest for a racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence."

Wow. Not just a Section 5 Public Order offence, but a racially aggravated Section 5 Public Order offence." Oh dear.

Notice, by the way, that Dale McAlpine was aware of Lord Waddington's amendment (attributing it, in the pressure of the moment, to Lord Carey), and of the meaning of the word 'homophobia'. The constables involved don't seem to have been quite as clued up.


Albert said...

Never let it be said that we live in a free country - that we don't is the legacy of NuLabour.

Credit to Mr Tatchell in this case, but what a state of affairs, in which it takes the intervention of someone like him to get Mr McAlpine off! The Glasgow case is similarly disturbing.

The interesting thing here is that the police seem to me to have over-stepped what the law (already unjustly) requires of them. (See here for a film of the arrest.) They really seem to believe it is their job to stop people expressing opinions that favoured minorities (seemingly chosen at random) don't like.

I am afraid that while the police have Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Police Community and Support Officers, take part in Gay Pride parades, fly the rainbow flag from police stations, and go beyond the law on these matters, there is no chance of anyone who regards such behaviour as intrinsically irrational and immoral of being treated fairly. In short, the police are now institutionally Christophobic, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic - because all these religions in their traditional forms regard homosexual acts as sinful, as have many of the world's greatest thinkers. Aristotle thought gay sex was akin to eating dirt, and even Freud seems to have thought it a perversion. But now, to expression such opinions is to run the risk of arrest.

Can anyone rely on Nickndave to restore the freedom of speech?

Young Mr. Brown said...

Thanks for the interesting video link, Albert, which I've now posted as an addendum.

There is no doubt that the police have become increasingly under pressure from politicians to come down hard on anything which is deemed seriously politically incorrect.

It is also true that a lot of constables don't actually seem to understand all the laws that they are expected to enforce.

The fact that the CPS also appears to have been confused means that it's hardly surprising that ordinary constables struggle.

One does feel that Mr McAlpine is due more than just a "Sorry - we made a mistake." Perhaps the police constables involved could be taken off for some re-education?


Albert said...

Perhaps the police constables involved could be taken off for some re-education?

Yes, some kind of diversity training seems to be in order! In the very least, one would have thought they should be able to discriminate (in the acceptable sense) between racism and homophobia and between homosexuality as an orientation and homosexual behaviours. They might also learn something about free-speech and the Christian heritage of their nation.

Given that "sin" is not a category in British law, it seems hard to see how saying homosexual relations are sinful could be illegal. Similarly, one wonders what would have happened if he had said "sex outside of marriage is a sin." Presumably, that opinion would have been okay! Ergo, homosexuals are (according to those policemen anyway) a privileged group. All animals are equal...