• First published in 2004 as Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (BNOR).

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Secularists and Christians Complain about Free Speech in the UK

Apri 2010: The National Secular Society warns that free speech in the UK is under attack from those who want to restrict criticism of religion:

An atheist who left leaflets mocking Jesus Christ, Islam and the Pope in Liverpool airport’s prayer room has been sentenced to six months in jail suspended for two years, ordered to perform 100 hours’ of unpaid work, pay £250 costs and given an Asbo.

The sentencing of Harry Taylor has been condemned by the National Secular Society as “creating a new blasphemy law that will open the way for every religious extremist to persecute and prosecute their critics.”

 …”Religiously aggravated offences represent a new kind of blasphemy law, and the professional offence takers in religious communities won’t be slow to exploit this new avenue of restricting criticism and comment about their beliefs. It is time for parliament to reconsider these provisions and remove them from the statute books.”

May 2010: Christian Concern for Our Nation warns that free speech in the UK is under attack from those who want to restrict criticism of secular society:

A Christian street preacher was arrested and put in jail by a homosexual police officer on 20 April 2010 for allegedly saying that homosexuality is a sin in the eyes of God.

Dale McAlpine, 42, who has preached the Christian Gospel in Workington, Cumbria for many years, was charged with causing ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ after a homosexual police community support officer (PCSO) overheard him reciting a number of sins referred to in the Bible, including idolatry, blasphemy, fornication, drunkenness, and same sex sexual activity.

…Melanie Phillips, an Orwell Prize winning journalist and author, wrote:… ‘It would appear that Christianity, the normative faith of this country on which its morality, values and civilisation are based, is effectively being turned into a crime.’ …Cristina Odone, a journalist, novelist and broadcaster, wrote that the case of Mr McAlpine is just the latest in a list of Christian victims of the new inquisition…

The case of McAlpine comes several weeks after an American preacher named Shawn Holes was arrested in Glasgow in similar circumstances; the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell criticised that decision on free speech grounds.

It seems to me that the operative principle in these various cases is that maintaining peace and order (in the broadest sense) is regarded as more important than free speech (although in McAlpine’s case, it seems that a police officer also took personal offence). That’s always been the situation, although with a changing society the way various laws are applied has changed. In the past, it was seen as important to restrict free speech in order to protect conservative social values – most notably through laws against obscenity, although the archaic “blasphemous libel” was dusted off for a case in 1979. Racist jokes, homophobia (and, in parts of the country, raw anti-Catholicism) were not seen as a big deal.

Now we have different social values – we take for granted things on TV that not too long ago would have generated huge controversies (good grief, Dr Who’s assistant made a pass at him last week!), but there is also a generally-shared view that we should not be disrespectful of people or groups for their ethnic origin or sexual orientation. This also applies to some extent to religious identities, particularly when linked to (and in some cases, conflated with) sensitivity about race. We don’t have a First Amendment in the UK (alas), and so it’s not a surprise that saying things that clash with society’s values continues to create problems with the law.

The fact that the NSS and CCFON both find reason to complain suggests to me that the law is bumbling along, reflecting confusions and contradictions in society rather than engineering social attitudes. A broad reform protecting free speech along American lines would be a good way to cut through all the confusion.

I blogged previously on religion and free speech here.

Meanwhile, Dale McAlpine has a blog here, and YouTube channel with recordings of various street preachers here. As you can see from the left column of my blog, I’ve had dealings of my own with some other street preachers, who regard me as a “beer guzzling, left wing LIBERAL”.

4 Responses

  1. The cases are not equivalent.

    Both men are entitled to their opinions.

    Harry Taylor seems to have been going out of his way to provoke and offend, perhaps for the sake of causing offence, as some of his previous history (including in church buildings) shows. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/religion/7624578/Atheist-given-Asbo-for-leaflets-mocking-Jesus.html He also has a previous conviction for “criminal damage, battery and threatening behaviour”. He seems to be mentally troubled (regardless of his religious opinions).

    I don’t think Dale McAlpine was going out of his way to offend. It seems that the PCSO who is said to be gay took offence to the statement that homosexual acts are sinful. I think Dale McAlpine would freely admit that Dale McAlpine had committed sinful acts.

    The Ash Wednesday protesters outside the MOD proclaim that UK defence policy of nuclear deterrence is sinful in the eyes of God. Is this offensive?

    One must distinguish between an opinion and how one expresses it.

  2. The National Secular Society has also criticised the prosecution of Dale McAlpine:

    http://www.secularism.org.uk/street-preacher-charged-for-spou.html

    They, at least, are consistent.

  3. I think that the free-speech of Christians is limited compared to at least one other faith. In Ontario, Canada there is a Muslim website calling for “genocide against the Jews”; yes, they’re literally calling for genocide of Jews.

    Canadian Jewish organisations, once liberal to the last man and some of the biggest promoters of mass immigration and multiculturalism, have been calling for the authorities ( for several days now) to do something about the perps, but as of yet nothing has been done.

    The police say they’re “fast-tracking” it!

    I find it astounding that individuals can openly call for mass murder against an identifiable group, an identifiable group that unwent a holocaust, and yet nothing whatsoever is done about it simply because those engaging in those calls are neither Western nor caucasian nor Christian.

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