Freedom of speech and the incompetence of the police
Free speech, expression and lawful demonstration must be permitted, even if it be born of misguided motives, political naïveté or religious bigotry. The alternative is a censorious regulation of conduct and the imposition of state-defined orthodoxy. In religio-political matters, private conscience must be permitted public expression within the tolerance of the law.
Cranmer does not agree with the BNP. But this is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and they are a law-abiding, non-violent group which should have the right to protest in a land which enshrines freedom of speech as a defining feature of its liberal democracy. Yet had they protested so provocatively against Islam in the fashion of the Muslim protesters in Luton, there is no doubt their placards would have been confiscated and arrests would have been made.
But Cranmer wishes to move the argument beyond the BNP, if only to avoid further harassment by its supporters (which is becoming increasingly frequent, and rather irritating).
Consider what the police would have done if a Christian group had protested at a ‘Gay Pride’ march, with placards which talked of sin or hell or dared to quote Scripture.
The police are attuned to ‘homophobia’ and ‘Islamophobia’ to such an extent that they have lost sight of their function in society, and are oblivious even to the possibility of ‘heterophobia’ or 'Christianophobia’. The police are not there to discern morality or to distinguish between individuals or groups in the same action: they are there to apply the law equally to all of Her Majesty’s subjects and to ensure that all are treated equally under that law. It is not for them to choose à la carte who may be guilty and who may not, depending on the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation: such judgement is the preserve of the courts.
The Public Order Act 1986 (Section 4a) refers to those who display any writing, sign, or other visible representation which is threatening abusive or insulting, with intent to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress. Section 5 refers to offensive conduct - using slogans or language that causes distress - after a warning from a police officer.
Yet these protesting Muslims were not arrested, despite their evident abusive behaviour and insulting placards, clearly intended to cause harassment or distress. This is the threshold at which protest becomes illegal, and Muslim groups like the Muslim Council of Britain and the British Muslims for Secular Democracy have been unequivocal in their condemnation. MCB Secretary General Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari said: "Whilst we understand the deeply held and widespread opposition to the disastrous war in Iraq, the Muslim Council of Britain condemns any form of protest where individuals are harmed or threatened. The 'protestors' did not speak for the majority of people who opposed that war."
The case of Redmond-Bate v. DPP (1999) concerned evangelical Christians who were leafleting and preaching outside Lichfield Cathedral. This led to their arrest for breach of the peace due to the reaction of members of a gathering crowd. The courts found them not guilty, and Lord Justice Sedley’s judgement is worth considering in this context:
‘Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having. What Speaker’s Corner (where the law applies as fully as anywhere else) demonstrates is the tolerance which is both extended by the law to opinion of every kind and expected by the law in the conduct of those who disagree, even strongly, with what they hear. From the condemnation of Socrates to the persecution of modern writers and journalists, our world has seen too many examples of State control of unofficial ideas. A central purpose of the European Convention on Human Rights has been to set close limits to any such assumed power. We in this country continue to owe a debt to the jury which in 1670 refused to convict the Quakers William Penn and William Mead for preaching ideas which offended against State orthodoxy.’
Let Luton’s Muslims protest against Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; let the BNP raise its voice against foreigners; and let Christians disseminate leaflets about sin and hell.
And let the police arrest those who choose to respond to peaceable and lawful protest with threats or violence.
Even at the risk of police officers being accused of ‘racism’ or ‘homophobia’.