Should the 1986 Public Order Act be used to curb homophobic speech by religious street preachers? A Baptist, Dale McAlpine, has been charged with causing intentional “harassment, alarm or distress” by describing same sex relationships as sinful. McAlpine was arrested after preaching from the top of a stepladder in Workington, Cumbria.
If you subscribe to the view that merely causing offence shouldn’t be deemed a genuine harm, as many defenders of free speech do, then this application of the 1986 law is morally indefensible. McAlpine’s sermon was certainly offensive to some, but it didn’t harm them. Hate speech, in contrast, is speech designed to cause its hearers real psychological pain. In some cases it can be more damaging than physical violence. If the law were used to curb this, there would be a better justification, though that would involve sensitivity to the details of each case. But there is little evidence that McAlpine was intending psychological damage to passersby. If anything, his intentions, though misguided, were benevolent.
There is a further problem with this case. The principle on which the arrest was made could be applied to just about any expressed view that listeners find offensive. Consistent application would result in the arrest of the Pope if he pronounces on homosexuality during his visit to the United Kingdom, but also of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins if they speak out publicly against the Pope’s immoral behaviour in relation to paedophilic priests.
Moral, political or religious disagreement shouldn’t be re-defined as “harassment” — that’s the sort of shift of meaning that George Orwell warned us about long ago. Greater toleration of divergent viewpoints is the answer here, not censorship. False and offensive speech should be met with counter-speech, not a gag.
Nigel Warburton is the author of Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, He will be blogging regularly for Index on the philosopical aspects of free speech contoversies