A victory for the freedom to disagree

17 November 2020

The Christian Legal Centre’s Roger Kiska comments on Mary Douglas’ victory after defending herself against code of conduct allegations following her refusal to back a Pride event grant.
This article was originally published by The Conservative Woman.

One of the barometers of a healthy democracy is the way it treats the expression of ideas and values which are in conflict with the existing cultural zietgiest. In modern Britain, there are few things more counter-cultural than Biblical Christian views on issues involving sex and sexuality. So dogmatic is culture on issues of permissive sexual freedom, that dissenting views are punished swiftly and oppressively.

One of the chief problems with this state of affairs is the failure of these forces – the one’s creating the heckler’s veto – to recognise that not everyone in the UK thinks or believes as they do. In fact, a great many people, whether Christian or otherwise, feel wholly different from them but are afraid to speak up because they simply don’t care to deal with the conflict and potential backlash involved.

What happens then, when an elected politician speaks up for these very people, and stands up for the values they hold with sincerity and in good faith? Thanks to Councillor Mary Douglas and the stand she took against using public funds to support a local gay Pride event, we now know the answer to how the political and media class would react. Thankfully, at the end of the day, right reason won out and clearer heads prevailed.

‘I cannot support this’

Cllr Mary Douglas is a Christian councillor in the Wiltshire Council, who has served her local community as an elected representative for the last 15 years. She served a portfolio role for skills and social mobility for the Council, and in that capacity sat as a member of a committee considering grant applications at a local area board meeting on 4 November 2019. She has always been open about her faith and her beliefs, going so far as to note her Christianity on her election literature.

At that meeting, the Board considered a grant proposal from Salisbury Pride, which sought £2000 for the Salisbury Pride March 2020. In the end, the Board voted 6 votes for and 2 votes against providing funding for Salisbury Pride, eventually agreeing to provide a grant of £1000 for the event.

Cllr Douglas, being one of the two dissenting votes, provided her reasoning for voting against the proposal, saying:

“I cannot support this. Not because I do not accept or respect or love people who identify as LGBTQ but because I do. I do not reject people who so identify, and I support completely their right to make choices and to live as they see fit. However, I do not support those choices themselves, nor the ideology they represent. These are beautiful people, well-meaning and sincere, but misguided by a powerful ideology – google Gay Liberation Front Manifesto mid 20thC – which I do not want to be part of promoting. This is not just my view – it represents that of many people who are afraid to say so, ‘the silent majority.’

“In fact, even if I agree with the ideology, should local government be funding a march to raise the profile and promote the worldview of any one part of our community? In a diverse society, we need to tolerate different viewpoints and lifestyle, but we do not need to affirm them. Indeed, the very word ‘tolerate’ indicates that we disagree or potentially disapprove of that which we are asked to tolerate. We absolutely should permit marches promoting an ideology, religion or worldview but we do not need to and, indeed, should not promote them.”

The fallout

The reaction of the Council was swift and draconian. The Leader of the Council, Cllr Phillip Whitehead, removed Cllr Douglas from the Social Mobility and Skills portfolio with immediate effect. At the same time, a local newspaper published a salacious story labelling Cllr Douglas’ views as disgraceful, while taking out key parts of her statement to give the impression that she was suggesting that those who identify as LGBT are misguided in general. The article also wrongly attributed a quote to Cllr Douglas, which actually came from a Mermaids Campaigner seeking to demonise her, that she believed transgender people were mentally ill.

As a result of this reporting, two members of the LGBT community who were not present at the 4 November meeting, and only learned about Cllr Douglas’ statement from the news article, complained to the Council’s Standards Committee about her views. The result was that Cllr Douglas was investigated for Code of Conduct infractions and found that there was a case to answer before the Standards Committee.

Democracy at risk

Cllr Douglas’ written and oral submissions focussed on two things: (i) the distinction between sexual orientation, which is protected under anti-discrimination law, and the political and worldview elements of LGBT campaigning; (ii) Cllr Douglas’ freedom of speech and the necessity of protecting pollical speech.

The basic premise of her defence was the existential threat posed to the democratic process by scrutinising an elected official’s every policy stance through the lens of equality considerations. Such concerns are far too nebulous and subject to partisan viewpoint discrimination to be of any practical assistance to justify interfering with an elected official’s freedom to do their job. In fact, it could be argued, that the censorship of political speech by threat of code of conduct sanctions where reasonable minds could genuinely disagree on policy, is the very definition of tyranny.

Sexual orientation, Pride and politics

One of the most fundamental principles Cllr Douglas relied on in her defence was this: being gay and LGBT campaigning are not synonymous. The former is about sexual attraction and the latter about political activism and worldview. Not all people who are gay are LGBT campaigners, and not all LGBT activists are gay.

The Council’s short-sightedness in not being able to differentiate between the two is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the work of the campaigning organisation Stonewall. Each election cycle Stonewall publishes its own election manifesto. While some of their demands are about sexual orientation as a protected characteristic, many of their political demands go well beyond and would require vast sums of public expenditure, changing existing laws, changing the national census, changing the way we sign official documents, overhauling entire institutions, and changing foreign policy.

Some of their demands include asking to government to defund any organisation that is not LGBT friendly, such as the Salvation Army. They also demand that LGBT asylum seekers be given preferential treatment by having them bypass the detention centres that every other asylum seeker must enter. They also wish to change blood donation rules and surrogacy laws; and to make HPV vaccinations gender neutral.

As campaigners they have every right to engage the democratic process. But to suggest that they are immune from being criticised for having an agenda which would alter the cultural fabric and for which public funds should not necessarily be spent would be preposterous.

Yet, this is essentially what Wiltshire Council was suggesting in its code of conduct proceedings by arguing that Cllr Douglas’ principled opposition to the political message of Pride was actually an attack on sexual orientation. To prove her point, Cllr Doulas’ written submissions cited numerous sources from LGBT campaigning organisations which themselves hail Pride as both protest and politics.

Therefore, Cllr Douglas has every right, on behalf of her constituents, to question why public funds should go to support any event which is politically partisan and question the worldview behind it. To infer that her motives were inherently bigoted says a lot more about the Council than it does Cllr Douglas.

Free speech and heightened security

At the heart of Cllr Douglas’ defence was the importance of the free expression of ideas in the public square. Political speech enjoys the highest level of judicial scrutiny both at common law and under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

So important is freedom of speech in the context of government debate, that immunity has been extended to parliamentarians since 1689 for statements made during the course of their official duties.

The Human Rights Act allows for interference with freedom of expression only where (1) such an interference is prescribed by law, (2) where it pursues a legitimate aim and (3) when it is necessary in a democratic society. Only when those three elements are met can a limitation to free speech be justified. With regard to element (2), Article 10 of the Convention provides an exhaustive list of legitimate aims, meaning that a public authority can only limit speech based on the listed legitimate aims proscribed by the Convention. There are six of them, none of which were used by the Council to justify their disciplinary proceedings against Cllr Douglas. Instead, the Investigating Officer suggested equality considerations were enough to punish the speech of an elected official. In this, she was wrong.

The freedom to disagree is at the heart of democracy

Precisely stated, while members of the Council and Salisbury Pride may find Cllr Douglas’ views foreign to their own, and even upsetting, they are nonetheless protected views. For that matter, so too do people across Britain who feel as if their views are not respected on these issues and who are tired of being labelled as bigoted find the vitriol pointed in their direction equally offensive.

Cllr Douglas’ was vindicated by the Standards Committee on 6 November, on free speech grounds. The Committee’s findings are an affirmation that political speech and debate must remain free. Cllr Douglas’ supporters, those who voted her into office because of the views she fights for, deserve representation in the political arena as much as the views of any other constituents.

To suggest otherwise would do violence to the integrity and necessity of robust political debate and would disparage and disenfranchise the many residents of this Council who share the beliefs put forward by Cllr Douglas on this issue, whether they be Christians, people of other faiths, or people of no faith at all. Without the freedom to disagree in the context of political debate, then we are not really free at all.

Find out more about Mary Douglas
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