The Joint Committee on Human Rights is investigating the issue of freedom of expression, calling for evidence from interested groups and individuals. Christian Concern has now submitted evidence from many of our legal cases and the individuals and families that we have supported, calling for free speech to be protected in our society. We would encourage anyone interested in the protection of freedom of expression and religious exercise to make a submission. Every voice helps.
The call for evidence defines freedom of expression as “an essential foundation of democratic society, guaranteed by the common law and by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.” It asks the following questions in relation to the Committee’s inquiry:
- Does hate speech law need to be updated or clarified as shifting social attitudes lead some to consider commonly held views hateful?
- Does current police guidance and practice on hate speech law help promote freedom of expression?
- Is there a need to review the wording and application of Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) legislation?
- What obligations does an employee have to their employer when expressing views on social media, and to what extent can, and should, employers respond to what their employees say on these platforms?
- Is greater clarity required to ensure the law is understood and fair?
- How has the situation changed in universities in the two years since the Committee’s report on the issue?
- Does everyone have equal protection of their right to freedom of expression?
Over-regulating free speech and the effect on Christians
The over-regulation of speech has become such a problem in the UK that even mainstream Christian values expressed publicly and privately have led to fines, arrests, imprisonment and unemployment. Last year alone, the Christian Legal Centre received some 895 enquiries from Christians who felt that they had suffered some form harm due to expressing their Christian faith. A large number of those enquiries came from people who were facing, or had faced, disciplinary action because they had expressed a Christian view of marriage and sexuality or of gender.
This week, we are supporting the case of Seyi Omooba, a Christian actress who was hounded out of her leading role in the musical The Color Purple, for having expressed four years earlier her belief in Biblical marriage between a man and a woman. Another actor, from a different musical, had found her Facebook post from years earlier, mustered up support from within the acting community and essentially had her forced out because she refused to renounce her faith. Sadly, Seyi’s is just one of many similar cases.
The number of cases we have seen relating to the freedom to express mainstream Christian views on sexuality and gender has grown exponentially in recent years. The cases of Felix Ngole, Richard Page, Kristie Higgs, Keith Waters, Josh Williamson, David Mackereth, Mike Davidson, Mary Douglas, and many others demonstrate this.
Sadly, these cases also extend to schools. Izzy Montague faced victimisation after she raised concern about her son’s primary school promoting LGBT issues to children as young as five. Going one step further, the same primary school demonstrated an incredible capacity to discriminate against its own Christian pupils when it excluded two 10-year-old children after they refused to take part in the school’s Pride event.
Despite legal protections for Christian street preachers – namely exemptions written into the Public Order Act 1986 – street preachers continue to be arrested and harassed for preaching on issues such as homosexual behaviour and Islam.
Michael Jones, Andrew Geuter, Rob Hughes, and Tony Miano are all examples of Christian Legal Centre cases which involved Christians being arrested for so-called homophobic remarks. While the Christian Legal Centre has a 100% success rate in street preacher cases, it cannot be denied that such arrests have a strong chilling effect on freedom of Christian expression.
Similarly, Mike Overd has been arrested seven times in recent years for publicly preaching on issues related to Islam and sexual purity. In his one conviction (before being overturned on appeal), the prosecutor in the Bristol magistrate’s court suggested that preaching certain verses from the Bible in today’s England can amount to a Public Order offence.
Mike is not alone either; there seems to be a growing trend to silence anyone who openly criticises Islam. Street preacher Ian Sleeper was arrested for preaching a message of love for Muslims but criticising Islam. He was arrested in Southwark Borough, detained for 13 hours and had strict bail conditions imposed on him from entering the Borough. The Crown Prosecution Service eventually dropped the charges. Similarly, in 2019, footage of the arrest of preacher Oluwole Ilesanmi being arrested outside Southgate tube station went viral. Olu was arrested for allegedly breaching the peace, although mobile phone video footage clearly shows that no such breach of the peace occurred. Prior to his arrest, Olu has been engaging with a Muslim man who appeared ready to physically attack the preacher.
And sadly, physical altercations have taken place – even in the ‘home of free speech’. Although not a Christian Legal Centre case, Christian preacher Hatun Tash was recently removed from Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner and has been physically assaulted on a number of occasions. Tim Dieppe has previously written on the threat to freedom of speech and expression through the definition of Islamophobia.
Public space protection orders
The freedom to protest abortion has also been under attack in more recent years. In 2018, although the Home Office rejected efforts to create buffer zones around abortion facilities as evidence suggested that the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, local councils such as Ealing have nonetheless been enacting Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) which have the same legal effect as creating buffer zones.
In August 2019, Christian Hacking became the first person ever to be arrested for publicly praying in front of an abortion clinic in violation of a PSPO. The PSPO prohibited certain types of protest, including prayer, within 100 meters of an abortion clinic.
The erosion of freedom of speech and expression is also taking hold in our university campuses, with ‘no-platforming’ becoming a worrying trend. As Spiked Online has reported, 43% of British Universities have implemented speech codes and policies which limit religious expression. Evidence also shows that no less than 108 universities in the United Kingdom have actively censored free speech or have done so through over-regulation.
By way of example, cultural forces are seemingly aggressively wiping out any pro-life views. On university campuses across the country, students’ unions are adopting totalitarian pro-abortion policies which seek to prohibit the affiliation of pro-life student groups and no platform any pro-life activities. Such policies are not only woefully anti-democratic, they are also often unlawful. In the last two years, legal challenges were successfully brought against the students’ unions at Glasgow University, the University of Strathclyde, and Aberdeen University. Cardiff University’s pro-choice policy was also amended following a challenge, to remove any semblance of direct discrimination or restrictions on freedom of association. The Christian Legal Centre played significant roles in challenging the pro-abortion policies at both Aberdeen University and Cardiff University.
Committee must defend this fundamental freedom
The ongoing erosion of freedom of expression is having an increasingly detrimental impact on the ability of Christians to enjoy many of their fundamental freedoms. It has made it difficult for Christians to express their views without fear of punishment at work and has also led to social ostracism. Regulation of speech by public actors has further made it far more difficult for people with serious and cogent beliefs about issues such as abortion and homosexuality to air their views in the public square. The weight of speech regulation has been unduly burdensome on far too many people for far too long in the United Kingdom.
The Joint Committee of Human Rights would do well to take action in defence of this most fundamental freedoms, protecting – as it says in its own words – this “essential foundation of democratic society.”