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Free Speech under fire

What would you do if a policeman turned up at your door saying that a tweet you had written the night before about biological sex and gender amounted a criminal offence? What about if you were listening to an elderly man reading the Bible outside a train station and you saw two police constables interrupting him, arresting him, and escorting him to a police car to be driven off like a criminal to face hours of questioning at the station? What about if you heard your son on the phone to an officer saying that he was reporting a dinner table conversation where you emphatically said that marriage should be for one man and one woman?  

You might think that it doesn’t matter what you would do, as these are far-fetched situations.   

But, they are not.   

You may have seen that Harry Miller has just won a case in the Court of Appeal. After tweeting his views about gender in the comfort of his own home, the police recorded the “incident” as a “non-crime hate incident” under their ‘Hate Crime Operational Guidance’. This meant that Harry was listed by police in a database that could be shared with partners and communities, even though there was not enough evidence for a “hate element” to make it a crime under the law. The so-called “incident” was recorded because a reader was “offended” by the tweet. ADF UK supported Harry, and we are pleased that the Court ruled that the police’s recording amounted to a breach of his human rights.  

As for elderly street preachers, the case of  71-year old John Sherwood, a grandfather and well-known community figure, should send a warning to those of us who hold fast to the long-standing principle and right of free speech in public spaces. Earlier this year, he was handcuffed, arrested, and taken to a police station for 21 hours, all because he was preaching from a well-known passage of the Bible on the streets of Uxbridge. The police thought this was justifiable under the Public Order Act, a piece of law created 30 years ago to deal with football hooliganism and extreme street rioting, but in reality is now used to arrest individuals whose words cause offence to passers-by. Parliament has been debating a new Policing Bill for the past year and the Home Office hopes to empower policemen with have greater tools to crack down on disruptive street events and harmful speech. It may well give the police more freedom to arrest innocent evangelists like John who are merely expressing their democratic right to speak. ADF UK have been working tirelessly to amend the Bill and ensure greater free speech protections for Christians.   

And as for dinner table conversations, the new Hate Crime Act in Scotland should send a chill to all of us who want to retain a private dwelling exemption to hate speech laws. The Law Commission has recently released its final report about reforming the law on so-called ‘hate crimes’ in England, and it remains to be seen how our law will be altered to fit with a growing trend of criminalization for expression across the continent. ADF UK are working to defend the right to freedom of expression.   

We mention the continent of Europe because free speech is really under attack in many countries. We support Päivi Räsänen, a member of Finland’s Parliament since 1995, a medical doctor, mother of five, and grandmother of seven. For more than two years, she’s been in a legal battle to defend her right to speak freely. Räsänen could face two years in prison or a fine for sharing her opinion on marriage and human sexuality in a pamphlet, on a radio show, and in a tweet directed at her church leadership. Her case will be heard before the Helsinki District Court in January. “I cannot accept that voicing religious beliefs could mean imprisonment,” Räsänen has said. “I will defend my right to confess my faith, so that no one else would be deprived of their right to freedom of religion and speech.”   

You can learn more about Räsänen’s case here, and watch a powerful video featuring Räsänen describing her story. Please pray for justice in her upcoming court case and please consider how you can support her case.

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