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Freedom of speech must be defended… even for homophobes

This is a guest post by Peter Tatchell

The conviction and £1,000 fine imposed on a homophobic Christian street preacher in Glasgow must be condemned an attack on free speech and a heavy-handed, excessive response to homophobia. Shawn Holes, an American Baptist evangelist touring Britain, was fined £1,000 for telling passers-by in Glasgow city centre:

“Homosexuals are deserving of the wrath of God – and so are all other sinners – and they are going to a place called hell.”

In court, he admitted breaching the peace on 18 March by “uttering homophobic remarks” that were “aggravated by religious prejudice”.

Mr Holes is obviously homophobic and should not be insulting people with his anti-gay tirades. He should be challenged and people should protest against his intolerance. However, in a democratic, free society it is wrong to prosecute him. Criminalisation is not appropriate.

The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive.

Just as people should have the right to criticise religion, people of faith should have the right to criticise homosexuality. Only incitements to violence should be illegal.

Mr Holes’s £1,000 fine is totally disproportionate. Even people who commit robberies and violent assaults sometimes get off with lighter penalties. This prosecution was heavy-handed and an inappropriate use of the law.

If I had known about this prosecution in advance, I would have gone to court to defend Mr Holes’s right to freedom of expression and to urge that the charges against him be dropped. Even though I strongly disagree with his views on homosexuality, if he had decided to appeal against either the conviction or the sentence, I would have supported him.

I urge the police and prosecuting authorities to concentrate on tackling serious homophobic hate crimes, instead of wasting public money on petty, distasteful homophobic ranters.