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.

Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History

Is this censorship or merely curation?

You’re all aware of the controversy surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, right?

To recap: Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the colonialist, businessman and white supremacist whose career in Southern Africa had huge impact on the continent.  The celebrated Rhodes Scholarship programme at Oxford University was established by his estate. As such, there is a statue of him at Oriel College at Oxford.  Some current students are campaigning to have the statue removed on the grounds that Rhodes was a racist and not someone who should be glorified in stone.

This campaign is happening in a milieu of renewed debates about freedom of expression and decency at universities.  I am against ‘no platform’ policies,  and against the abuse of useful innovations such as Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings as a way to shut down offensive speech. Continue reading “Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History”

Discussing the Limits of Free Speech with The Londonist

Do extremists continue to preach underground when they get banned?

Earlier this week I sat down with the author N Quentin Woolf, host of the Londonist Out Loud podcast, to talk about free speech, its value and its limits.

The audio of our discussion has just been published.  You can listen via the Acast player below, and there are download and iTunes links on the Londonist website. Continue reading “Discussing the Limits of Free Speech with The Londonist”

Anyone calling for candidates to drop out of the Labour Leadership race is an innumerate idiot

A quick point, if I may: You know how Jeremy Corbyn is now 20 points ahead of his rivals, and some people are urging the lesser candidates to consolidate behind a single Anyone-But-Jeremy candidate?

That’s stupid and wrong.

Its stupid because the election is being conducted on an Alternative Vote system.  The electors rank the candidates in order of preference.  The candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their votes are divided up amongst the remaining candidates.  That process is repeated until one candidate has a majoirty.

Mathematically, that is exactly the same as if the lesser candidates had pulled out… but with one important exception: its more democratic.

The ‘drop out’ suggestion is also morally wrong.  With the AV system, each elector gets to express a preference for who drops out and in what order.  That’s far better approach than a candidate being peer-pressured or media-pressured into dropping out mid-campaign, which is anti-democratic and makes the entire contest a hostage to bad opinion polling.

The fact that people are calling for the poorly polling candidates shows that they are stuck in a First Past The Post mentality, even though the election is being run with more sophisticated and fairer rules.

Can Labour give the country what it wants?

Tony Blair gave a speech today, warning the post-defeat Labour Party of a lurch to the left.  Meanwhile, the most left wing of the four Labour Party leadership candidates, Jeremy Corbyn, is apparently leading the polls.

I find the pragmatism of the centrists in the Labour Party to be enticing.  If you want to win power and achieve social justice, they say, there is no point in positioning yourself too far away from the electorate.  To place Jeremy Corbyn at the top of the Labour Party is to distance the party from the rest of Britain.  And that means further election defeats.  Instead, the answer is to be more centrist, more Blairite, because at least that is where the rest of the country sits. Continue reading “Can Labour give the country what it wants?”

Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week.  Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable.  The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.

If this is a real trend then it’s appalling.  As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly.  Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage).  Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society.  Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.

I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading “Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?”

A Grim Future for our Unions and our Rights

Crikey. I’m dismayed by the result of the general election.

First, I should note just how wrong my own perception of the election campaign turned out to be!  After the leaders debates I said I expected Ed Miliband to be Prime Minister in May. That is clearly not going to happen.  And earlier this week I said I perceived a decline in the influence of the mainstream media on election campaigns.  After the apparent last minute shift in voters’ intentions, that appears to be incorrect.

However, my dismay comes not from the injury to my pride which results from making poor predictions.  Rather, it’s the prospect of what comes next for our unions (yes, unions plural) and our rights as citizens.

First, the fact that David Cameron will attempt to govern alone with a minority government, or a slender majority, will mean that the more Euroskeptic elements to the the right of the Conservative party will be able to hold him to ransom—just as the SNP would have apparently held a Labour government hostage.  The Conservatives have already promised that we will have a referendum on our membership of the European Union.  We now face the prospect of leaving the EU, sundering and cauterising our cultural and economic links with the continent.  This isolation will not be good for the UK.

A ‘Brexit’ will further strengthen the already jubilant Scottish National Party.  Despite the slightly skewed results that our ‘first past the post’ system delivers I just do not see how another referendum on Scottish Independence can still be ‘off the table’. For goodness sake—all but three MPs in Scotland are from the SNP!   If the UK leaves the EU, and with the other parties’ reduced political presence, another plebiscite on Independence would probably yield a ‘Yes’ vote.  Bye bye Scotland.

Finally, the Conservatives have also promised to scrap the Human Rights Act, a pledge that lawyers think is ‘legally illiterate’.  The so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ will water down the rights that we currently enjoy.  And since the Tories gutted legal aid provision and squeezed the judicial review process, it will be harder than ever for citizens to hold the government to account when it deploys discriminatory policies against us.  

So by the time of the next general election in 2020, there is a very good chance that those of us living in rUK will have lost the political protections of the EU, will have lost the guarantee that out human rights will be protected, and will have lost a progressive political counter-weight to the Tories that may be found in Scotland. And the right-wing media will cheer it all.

Grim, grim grim.

The #Sunifesto is confused about free speech

We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.

Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.

Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.

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The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.

The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.

The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).

Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?

For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.

Political Correctness in Rochester & Strood

I’ll start with the happy ending: Nigel Farage is a big fat hypocrite.. Now you know where I’m going with this, I can begin.

Last week’s political storm concerned Emily Thornberry, the MP for Islington and until recently the Shadow Attorney General. In the last hours of the Rochester & Strood by-election camapign, she tweeted a photo of a house bedecked with St George flags and a white van outside. Caption: “Image from #Rochester”.
Continue reading “Political Correctness in Rochester & Strood”

Halal pizza and the demonisation of Muslims

I say that if you’re not prepared to look an animal in the eye and then stab it to death, you’re living in a state of denial and should not be eating meat at all.

The latest multicultural controversy feels entirely manufactured, but I’ll bite anyway.  Apparently, Pizza Express is serving Halal chicken to its customers, but not announcing this fact on its menus.  The Sun is outraged, and the story was on the front page yesterday.

Unfortunately the entire article is behind a paywall, but I read it on paper and its a sneering, conspiratorial piece that seems to imply that this choice by Pizza Express is evidence of some creeping Islamic takeover of Britain. Continue reading “Halal pizza and the demonisation of Muslims”