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Am I an enemy of free speech

Following my recent article on the proposed visit of Franklin Graham to Blackpool, a number of people have suggested that I am guilty of wanting to censor or restrict the right to free speech.

I don’t think I am. In fact, in other articles and opinions I have been somewhat critical of restrictions on so called ‘Hate Speech.’

Fr Andrew

There is, I believe a very fine line to be trod. I should perhaps say right at the beginning, that I would not wish to censor anyone who would wish to challenge or even decry my religious views. Also, I respect entirely, any individual’s right to believe and state what they believe.

Mr Graham is perfectly entitled to his views. The right to freedom of expression is crucial in a democracy. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act safeguards the right to free expression, which includes the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without state interference.

The right to free expression is, however, not absolute – it can be limited to protect the rights of others. Any limitations on the right must be necessary and proportionate, and criminalising even the most unpalatable, illiberal and offensive speech should be approached with grave caution in a democracy.

Criminalising the incitement of violence or threats can be seen to be a justifiable limit on freedom of expression. What is controversial is the criminalisation of language (or behaviour) which may be unpleasant, may cause offence but which is not inciting violence, criminality etc.

The following criminal offences raise particular concerns for freedom of expression:

Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA) made it an offence for a person to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress. This can have serious implications on peaceful protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence; (The term insulting was later modified – but the point still stands)

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to send a message by means of a public electronic communications network which is grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. This offence is incredibly broad and has been used to address jovial, albeit misjudged communications – it carries huge implications for freedom of expression especially now that social media is so widely used. Section 127 has been used to prosecute a young man who tweeted his frustration about being unable to see his girlfriend due to airport closure. His tweets, which were made without intent to carry out their content or incite others to do so, resulted in his conviction for being a menace under the act – thankfully that conviction has now been overturned;

In 2006 the Racial and Religious Hatred Act amended the POA to make it an offence punishable by up to seven years imprisonment, to use threatening words or behaviour intended to stir up religious hatred; Am I in danger then if I strongly criticise Franklin Graham’s interpretation of the Bible?

In 2008 the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act amended the POA to add an offence of using threatening words or behaviour intended to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation; Is it wrong then for anyone to say they disagree with same sex marriage?

The Terrorism Act 2006 criminalises ‘encouragement of terrorism’ which includes making statements that glorify terrorist acts, punishable by up to seven years imprisonment. It is an offence even if the person or group making the statement doesn’t intend to encourage terrorism. As the definition of terrorism is so wide this could criminalise people speaking out against repressive regimes anywhere in the world;

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act provided for two offences aimed at tackling sectarian division and associated violence in Scotland. Liberty has expressed concern that the broadly framed offences in this act will unnecessarily sweep up individuals exercising their right to free speech who have no intention to commit or incite a criminal offence and in the event do not do so;

So where does that leave us? Confused? Well I am.

I suppose in essence, my argument is not with the beliefs Franklin Graham chooses to hold– though I detest them. I have a concern though, that his stating them can easily cause real problems for some groups of people, in this case LGBT+ people, and faithful peaceable Muslims. But then I run up against my own arguments above. We can seem to go round in circles!

So, why am I against Franklin Graham coming?

Well, as I said before, I like many people detest the extremity and tone of what he says about some minority groups. For the purposes of this article, I will move away from the arguments I have previously iterated on his (in my opinion) homophobic views and preaching. (Though I continue to oppose those views) I think there is real danger in inciting hatred by what he continues to say about the Muslim community in general– “Isis is Islam: Islam is Isis.”

Is that statement likely to fuel prejudice and hatred? Well, I think yes. We live in a nation and in a part of the world where racial tensions are already running very high. Our diocese is at the forefront of inter-faith relations with the Muslim community. Following the recent terror attacks, people including our own religious leaders, Bishop Julian and our local clergy, have stood side by side with Muslim leaders to denounce terrorism. Below I reproduce an article from a Manchester newspaper.

It was the morning after the Manchester Arena attack when mum Abir Albasir was walking her two children to school, still oblivious to the atrocity that had unfolded the night before.

So when she was confronted by a man yelling and swearing at her to ‘go back to your country’ she had no idea what had sparked his outburst.

Four months on from the terrible event that killed 22 people and injured many more, Abir is still visibly shaken by the ordeal.

Speaking to the M.E.N as we launch our #WeStandTogether campaign, Abir, who is originally from Libya, recalls what happened as she strolled along with her children Maria and Anas that morning.

“You don’t forget what happened because it was so hard”, she said. “When you’re walking to come to school with the kids and somebody starts swearing at you and you don’t know what’s going on and it’s not your fault.

“I started apologising, I said ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on’, but I don’t know why I apologised to him. He was just swearing all the time and saying ‘we don’t want you in this country’.”

Abir, 41, lived in England as a schoolgirl and after returning to Libya for a while, she settled in Manchester in 2005 - the city she calls her ‘second home’ and the place where both her children were born.

She’s now a teaching assistant at St Mary’s Primary School in Moss Side , which her kids both attend.

“The children said ‘what have we done wrong?’ but I said we didn’t do anything wrong, but some people think it’s our fault because we’re Muslims and we wear a head scarf. They think it’s our fault, not everyone is the same.”

Following the confrontation Abir said her husband Shueib, 47, advised her to stay at home more to avoid it happening again.

She said: “He said ‘you should stay at home these days’, he was a little afraid, he said ‘stay at home, protect the kids’ and ‘don’t play outside’.”

But Abir says she’s determined to carry on regardless.

“It’s not our fault,” she said: “Just because somebody did that, you don’t blame all Muslims. It’s so wrong.”

She has been supported by friends and colleagues at St Mary’s, where headteacher Jenny McGarry said both children and staff were affected by the terror attack.

Jenny said: “We had to re-assure children that despite all the media attention, the Islamic focus and the extremism focus, that they were safe here and that they weren’t to blame.

“They were all upset from it and there was a very quiet, sombre mood, but also quite kind of defiantly rights respecting. Because it was young people involved in the attack they really took exception to those people not being able to relax and enjoy themselves.”

I don’t think that the appearance of Franklin [“Isis is Islam: Islam is Isis.”] Graham will do anything to help, do you?

Or am I an enemy of free speech?

Fr Andrew

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