Religion and free speech——The right to be rude
An offensive preacher acquires some unlikely allies
MICHAEL OVERD is an evangelical Christian with strong views on the sinfulness of homosexuality and the wrongness of Islam (except, presumably, on the issue of homosexuality). He likes to hold forth among the shoppers of Taunton, a quiet town in south-west England. But on March 23rd Mr. Overd was found guilty of using threatening or abusive language—although a more serious charge of causing “religiously aggravated” offence was rejected. The judge, Shamim Qureshi, ordered him to pay ￡250 ($375) in compensation to a man who said he was left feeling “ashamed and belittled” by the preacher's stance on same-sex relations.
When Mr. Overd objected to “paying 250 to a sodomite” the judge threatened him with 45 days in prison. The preacher then agreed to pay compensation but said he would appeal. “I find it quite incredible that a Muslim judge finds a Christian guilty and wants to protect homosexuals, whom I have no personal hatred against,” he declared on leaving the courtroom.
The evangelist has acquired some unlikely defenders. The National Secular Society (NSS), which fights religious privilege of all kinds, says the case vindicates its long-running campaign to safeguard free speech from sloppy legislation. Mr. Overd was prosecuted under the Public Order Act, which outlaws “threatening, insulting or abusive” language and can result in prison sentences of up to seven years if the offence is deemed to be racially or religiously motivated.
Thanks to a campaign by the NSS and others, the law has been amended so that insulting language no longer incurs prosecution merely because the police think it has the potential to offend. It must be shown that an insult was directed at a particular person or group, and that offence was taken. But civil libertarians want the law further amended to protect insulting speech and take away the reference to religious aggravation. Although Britain has abolished its ancient ban on blasphemy, which punished insults against Christianity, the concept of religious aggravation amounts to a new sort of blasphemy law that could be used to prevent criticism of any religion, argues Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS.
One of Britain's best known gay-rights campaigners, Peter Tatchell, has offered to speak in court in favour of the preacher's right to hold forth. He thinks that Mr. Overd's views are bigoted and would protest against them. But being spared offence is not a human right, he says: “In a free, democratic society, the criminalization of unpleasant opinions is a step too far.”