Being a crank is not a crime

Now you don't even have to break the law to be banged up for what you say.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Free Speech

Over the past month, people across the Midlands and northern England have had strange leaflets stuffed through their letter boxes. The leaflets aim to bring public attention to what the leaflets refer to as the ‘evils of homosexualism’. The leaflets state that ‘Homosexuality is not natural’ and that Gay Pride marches are ‘lewd, silly and simply satanic; the delight of demons’. The unpleasant literature has appeared in Preston, Lincoln, Leicester and Chester, coinciding with Gay Pride events in each of the towns.

Earlier this year, the leaflets also showed up in towns in the south of England. Witnesses in Lincoln told local press that they saw a man dressed in a monk’s habit delivering them. The description matches reports of a man who was seen posting similar flyers in Brighton during the summer.

You’d hope that the prospect of one nutter disseminating weird leaflets would spark little more than bemusement – and it’s likely that the majority of recipients simply brushed the whole thing off. Yet police forces across the North have been inundated with calls in recent days from offence-seekers demanding that something be done.

The calls for a crackdown on these offensive materials was bolstered by Gay Pride organisers. Lincoln Pride spokesman Adam Shorter told the Lincolnite: ‘As a community organisation, we fully respect every person’s right to free speech and opinion in a public forum. However, this method of posting such distasteful leaflets at someone’s home is disrespectful and should not, in our opinion, be allowed… it worries us that this type of propaganda could negatively affect a person’s wellbeing or make them question their sexuality or identity.’ Meanwhile, Preston Pride organiser Steve Griffin told the BBC that the flyers’ fire-and-brimstone rhetoric ignored the New Testament teaching of ‘love thy neighbour’ – he is seemingly unaware of the New Testament’s numerous prohibitions on homosexuality.

It’s disheartening to see gay-rights organisers be so blasé about calling on the law to censor views they find offensive. It was not too long ago that the law was used to crackdown on any public expression of homosexuality for precisely the reason that it offended the status quo. It was not until 1982 that the last vestiges of the Buggery Act (1533) were repealed. Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’, was not repealed until 2003.

Nowadays, UK police forces are particularly overzealous when it comes to investigating speech crimes. Twitter trolls have been subject to dawn raids for tweeting nasty things to celebrities while football fans have been banged up for singing politically incorrect songs. But what about offensive speech that isn’t illegal? What about when it’s just, as in this case, one nutter professing his odd, old-fashioned religious beliefs? Well, if this case is anything to go on, this technicality needn’t get in the police’s way.

In response to the anti-gay leaflets, Lancashire police vowed to investigate ‘with a view to discussing the impact the leaflets have had’. While Lincolnshire police said that, while they recognised the right to freedom of speech, ‘when that expression causes others offence and worry, we will step in’.

Of course, the content of these leaflets will have, understandably, offended some people. But it’s deeply concerning that a section of the public think being offended is enough to go to the police and demand those responsible be punished – especially when no laws have actually been broken. Going to the cops over trivial matters would once have been ridiculed. Now it seems that it is something to be encouraged, both by nominally liberal gay-rights organisations and the police themselves.

Shorter’s suggestion that the content of one leaflet could potentially pose a threat to gay people’s ‘wellbeing’, speaks to a common assumption today that offensive speech can cause genuine emotional and mental harm. But if there is someone who could be so perturbed by the bile of one nutter that they’d be left mentally scarred, then all the laws in the world can’t protect them.

The police’s reaction to what are, in effect, nuisance calls about a non-crime shows that they no longer see their role as enforcing the law so much as pandering to the complaints of the easily offended. Such an attitude can only have a stifling effect on the very same values of tolerance and freedom that Gay Pride organisations claim to champion.

Postscript: Since this article was written, it has been announced that a 53-year-old man has been questioned by police in Stoke-on-Trent in connection with the anti-gay leaflets. He has not been charged, but the Harborough Mail has reported that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is under under pressure to bring charges against him.

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Topics Free Speech