Peter Tatchell’s Surprising Support for the Homophobic Bakers

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the homophobic Bed & Breakfast owners. But Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’?  Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation.  The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.

The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week.  Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery.  There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.

I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:

It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage.  Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one.  The implications loom large.  Tatchell asks:

Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

The Medium of Icing

Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.

How We Export The Erosion of Human Rights

Defending the law, the Chinese government pointed to legislation proposed in Western nations.

Whenever I moan about the British Government interfering with and weakening our human rights protections, one thing I usually note is what a terrible example it sets to other countries around the world.  How can we expect other Governments to respect human rights if we do not respect them ourselves.

Here is a concrete example of this problem in action, courtesy of The Guardian.

China introduces its own ‘snooper’s charter’

Defending the law, the Chinese government pointed to legislation proposed in Western nations, such as Britain’s draft investigatory powers bill, which grants similar powers to the UK government.

There is no need to comment further at this point.

GCHQ Has Not Been Here

I wonder whether ISPs could provide similar signs to their customers?

The draft Investigatory Powers Bill was published at the beginning of November.  Its a huge document and the Government promised there would be ample time for scrutiny before MPs start the formal legislative process next year.  Unfortunately, some are suggesting it now be rushed through in the wake of the Paris attacks. Continue reading “GCHQ Has Not Been Here”

Surveillance: It’s not all about you

Ambivalence about the rights of others is unpatriotic.

The Investigatory Powers Bill will be published tomorrow.  The Home Secretary will set out her vision for what snooping powers the security services should have in their tool-box, and also what oversight parliament, the judiciary, and independent ‘watchdogs’ should have over the use of those powers.

I work for English PEN, one of the six organisations leading the Don’t Spy On Us campaign.  Be in no doubt I will be sharing our analysis of the proposed new law and recommendations for improvement.

A constant issue regarding civil liberties (and one that we have discussed before on these pages) is how to convince members of the public to care about human rights when few of us ever actually experience a violation of those rights.  In the past, I have discussed the idea of ‘everyday rights‘ and the notion that, even if we are not tortured or detained, our lives are made marginally worse when our rights are eroded, even in small ways. Continue reading “Surveillance: It’s not all about you”

Photography Imbued with Sadness

photographs of human rights defenders which are taken and the person knows that this photo might be used at a later point in time to raise awareness, when he or she is in prison or vanished.

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example. Continue reading “Photography Imbued with Sadness”

Ok, so this right here is why we need strong human rights laws

Bloody hell.  A serving general has threatened mutiny if a Corbyn-led Labour government attempts to scrap Trident or otherwise downgrade our military capabilities.  The Independent reports that the general said that the military would attempt to stop such policies being enacted, “by fair means or foul”. Continue reading “Ok, so this right here is why we need strong human rights laws”

Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes

Yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced that his Government had targeted British citizens with missiles fired from RAF drones.  Two men are dead.  The Sun and others have cheered the news.  Others have expressed grave concern. Continue reading “Why we shouldn’t execute Islamic State militants with air-strikes”

RightsInfo: Free Speech And Why It Matters

The brilliant and essential new website Rights Info, developed by the team behind the equally indispensable UK Human Rights Blog, asked me to write a guest post on the concept of free speech.  The article was part of a week long series on the right to freedom of expression.  In previous weeks the site has focused on other human rights, like privacy.


Freedom of Expression is an ‘enabling right’.  It is the human right that allows people to secure and defend all the other human rights.  Without an unfettered right to speak, how could you complain about ill-treatment at the hands of the state?  Without free speech, how could you organise to associate with others?  Without free speech, how could you express your religious beliefs?  Without free speech, how can journalists hold big business and politicians to account?

Freedom of expression is not just a tool for enforcing other rights.  It enables human flourishing and is therefore an end in itself. This is because freedom of expression is more than just the right to speak freely.  It includes other kinds of activity too. The freedom to write, to publish, to paint and to perform. The freedom to record voice, music and song and to disseminate the recordings. Crucially, freedom of expression also includes the right to receive information too: the freedom to read, to watch and to listen. In the Internet age, freedom of expression includes the freedom to share, too.

Finally, freedom of expression includes the right not speak, if you disagree with the words that others want you to say.  Together, these activities we call ‘expression’ drive human interaction.  Any interference in freedom of expression curtails culture and postpones politics.

Debate me, argue with me

There is inherent value in human discussion, debate and argument. The progress of our cultures and our species depends on it. The suppression of ideas causes complacency and stagnation. It is always better for ideas to be out in the open where they can be developed, or discredited, as the case may be. Bottle up a bad idea and it usually develops, unchallenged, into an even worse one.  Far better to keep the bad ideas out in the open, where criticism and ridicule will cause them to wither.

 Many people like to claim they support freedom of expression, and then go on to say ‘but’… They place caveats on the idea, and say that with freedom of expression comes ‘responsibilities’.  That is a confused approach, because we have plenty of other laws that place responsibilities upon us.  Human rights are a special type of law, because they govern how the state behaves towards its citizens, not how citizens must behave towards each other. 

Free speech must include the right say things that other people may not wish to hear, and free speech with conditions is no free speech at all. Words that shock are very often essential: they might be the only way to make people listen or to understand the importance of what is being said. Whether or not you use offensive language is a matter of manners and style: the law has no place in regulating insulting speech. Laws that regulate offensive speech give veto power to those with the thinnest skins. Paradoxically, it is often those in positions of political or religious power who are the quickest to take offence.

Counter-speech

Freedom of expression also includes ‘counter-speech’ – the right to answer back.  What many people label ‘political correctness’ is in fact the emboldened voices of previously silenced groups, telling those in positions of traditional power why they are wrong. When privileged people are challenged, they mistakenly believe that they are being censored. They are not. Instead, they are merely being told that they are wrong!  Free speech means no-one gets to have the last word.

Counter-speech is an important concept, because it provides an answer to the perennial free speech conundrum: what do we do about people who use their freedom of expression to spout racist or bigoted views? The answer to unpleasant free speech can only be more free speech! Those who value their freedom of expression can take advantage of that right, to challenge and counter harmful ideologies. This might mean signing a petition, attending a protest, sharing a link on Facebook… or simply, writing: a tweet, a blog, a book. 

All of these acts are free expression in action, which is why in authoritarian countries, such activities will very often land you in trouble… or even in prison. Dictators do not like to be challenged.  For over ninety years, English PEN activists have exercised their own freedom of expression in support of people who have been imprisoned or attacked because of what they have written.

As a literary charity, English PEN does more than campaign. It also runs events, giving a platform to diverse authors; outreach workshops, bringing literature to marginalised communities; and a translation programme, funding the publication of new literature from other languages.  Not only do these activities enrich our culture, but they build bridges and bonds between communities.  And they are all enabled by the right to freedom of expression.

Find out more about Freedom of Speech on Rights Info

How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*

A decade ago, I was pretty down on the whole idea of marriage.

Hooray for five ninths of the Supreme Court of the United States of America!  Today the Court ruled that bans on same sex marriage are unconstitutional.  Same-sex marriage, which was already legal in many states, is now legal throughout the USA.

Blogger and gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan has returned to blogging to welcome the news.  He’s been agitating for this since 1989.

Opponents of same sex marriage often claim that it will somehow undermine straight marriage.  That’s nonsense.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  Here’s why. Continue reading “How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*”

Human Rights as a Thought Process

The Human Rights Act makes the thought process right.

Last week I was invited to attend a speech by Rt. Hon. Harriet Harman MP, interim Leader of the Labour Party, entitled ‘In Defence of Human Rights‘.  She gave a robust defence of the Human Rights Act 1998, which the Conservative Party seeks to repeal.  She called the Government’s plans ‘politically and constitutionally destabilising’ and made important points about how the proposals would give authoritarian countries the ‘green light’  to start defining human rights in ways that suit those in power, rather than their citizens. Continue reading “Human Rights as a Thought Process”