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A Time for Hope for Free Speech?

“A common-sense judgment from Manchester County Court brings a beam of hope to what has been a long winter chill on expression,” writes communications officer Lois McLatchie.

Authorities cannot simply pull down bus ads they don’t like. Even if there are complaints by LGBT activists. And even if the poster advertises a Christian event. Has a springtime revival for free speech in this country finally arrived?

One may be led to think just that if they consider last week’s ruling from Manchester County Court. It slammed Blackpool Council for censoring completely innocuous adverts for a planned Christian festival in the city, featuring Franklin Graham.

Why censor? Because – they said – Franklin Graham’s words might offend people. The divisive message in question? “Time for Hope.” The ads only carried the title, date and location of the festival, with an invitation to book free tickets.

The micro–storm of outrage drummed up on social media against the bus ads was influenced by views which Franklin had stated on previous occasions – namely, his belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. An objectionable view to some – that much is clear. But, simultaneously, a view held by members of most major faith groups and agreed with, according to YouGov, by about 1 in 5 Brits. As the judge remarked, such views “may be offensive to some people, but they cannot properly be characterised as “extremist”.”

Indeed, if nobody with a different view on marriage is allowed even to speak in the UK, let’s be thankful that Pope Francis went to Iraq this year, rather than risking the hostile climate of England. He might just find himself on a watch list if he continues to voice Biblical doctrine.

In recent years, local authorities across the country have been frosty towards less-mainstream or minority views – even a simple “I heart JK Rowling” poster was removed from Edinburgh Waverley train station last year for fear of causing offense. Not one single complaint from the public had been registered. If that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, then the recent picture of Merseyside policemen posing next to a billboard claiming “to be offensive is an offence” just might. Outspoken comedians, authors, teachers and preachers brace against the chill.

The problem with such speech-police is that the question of what is “offensive” is subjective and malleable. When Rowling famously complained on Twitter last year that the word “woman” should not be eroded by the media into “people who menstruate”, activist group GLAAD accused her of using “cruel” words to “target” people who identify as transgender. Harry Potter himself implied that his creator’s beliefs made her responsible for causing serious mental harm. Ceremonial burnings of her worldwide bestselling series began to trend. If mob rule were judge and jury, she could have faced imprisonment in her home of Scotland under the new, intolerant speech law.

More recently, Davina McCall was icily blasted for defending men. Piers Morgan, after criticising a Duchess, was erased from GMB in a thunder clap. Even Mr. Potato Head has somehow gone down in this storm.

Meanwhile in Manchester, Judge Evans ruled “overwhelmingly in favour” of the Lancashire Festival of Hope, saying the Council “had a wholesale disregard” for the organisers’ right to freedom of expression.

A thaw in the ice. The ruling does not show prejudice to the rights and expression of the LGBT community, who in fact were well represented by the presence of rainbow flags throughout Blackpool during the length of the festival. And while one of the event organisers gave evidence that he believed those identifying as LGBT “had a legitimate right to have their voice heard and live without being treated prejudicially or with homophobic treatment,” the judge condemned the way the Council had “[given] a preference to the rights and opinions of one part of the community without having any regard for the rights of the [festival] or those who shared its religious beliefs.”

The ruling shows promising buds of the principles of equality and tolerance towards religious beliefs. It makes clear that disagreement on these cannot result in one party being simply frozen out of society.

Thankfully, the common-sense judgment brings a beam of hope to what has been a long winter chill on expression, caused by a demanding cancel culture equipped with political teeth. Free speech advocates are blinking at a surprise spring sun. Perhaps the ice is beginning to thaw. A time for hope indeed.

Lois McLatchie writes for ADF UK and can be found on Twitter at @LoisMcLatch.

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