Religious Freedom, Free Speech and Employment Rights: the case of Seyi Omooba

Seyi Omooba

Remember the Seyi Omooba controversy? Back in March 2019, she was cast as the lead in the Curve Theatre’s production of The Color Purple. Soon after this was announced, a Facebook post from 2014 emerged in which Omooba said that she believed homosexuality was a sin. Many people complained that someone with such beliefs would be cast to play an LGBT character such as Celie (who, after suffering abuse, falls in love with another woman).

Such was the furore that the theatre recast the role, and Ms Omooba was dropped by her agents. She took them both to an Employment Tribunal, claiming discrimination based on her religious beliefs. I wrote about the case at the time, asking whether homophobic views should receive any kind of special protection when veiled by religious belief. I also wondered why a five-year-old Facebook post had been ‘dredged up’ and whether Ms Omooba had ‘kept her views to herself’ or been sufficiently evangelical that it was appropriate that they affected her employment prospects.

Whenever there is a free speech controversy, many people like to parrot a common refrain: “Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”

This is true, but it’s also incomplete. Free speech does (or should) mean freedom from some consequences. For example, it can never be appropriate to murder cartoonists because of offensive drawings, or to issue a fatwa in response to a magical-realist novel that insults a particular religion.

Most free speech controversies that splatter themselves over the tabloids and Twitter timelines are really an argument about what consequences are appropriate for the perceived transgression.

Most people agree that the most extreme punishments are rarely, if ever, appropriate. No one should ever be subject to violence because of what they say or believe, and criminalising someone for what they have said should be limited to those who actively incite violence.

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Sweat The Small Stuff, Revisited

Kemi Badenoch MP

Previously on this blog, I’ve written about the need for activists to be an ‘awkward squad’ — a group of people who can be relied upon to kick up a fuss about small and innocuous infringements of human rights. If we wait for the egregious human rights violations to happen before we speak out, its already too late.

A good example of this might be the recent spat between Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch MP, and The Huffington Post. Last week, the Minister tweeted out screenshots of an email exchange between her communications team and Nadine White, a news reporter at the website’s UK Bureau.

No-one has been censored here. The minister simply expressed public annoyance with the journalist’s slightly pushy email manner. So its not a free speech issue, right?

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The Semi-Public Square

Commenting on the social media banning of Donald Trump, Adam Wagner describes Twitter as a “semi public square”

In reply, a few people assert that there is no such thing. Twitter is a private company with its own T&Cs that can be enforced as it sees fit. This allows them to dismiss the President’s suspensions as “not censorship” and “not about free speech.”

This might be true in a legal sense but it is certainly not in a moral or social sense, where the term ‘semi-public square’ is useful and instantly understandable.

Semi-public squares are places where there may be no formal right to expression, but where the particular historic, societal or cultural circumstances have created the expectation of that right. In the case of social media, that expectation is actually cultivated by the tech companies themselves.

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#BeanDad and Online Harms

Its Twelfth Night! Christmas is officially over, and we can return to the normality of publically shaming people on social media.

The first furore of the year concerns ‘Bean Dad’ John Roderick, a musician and podcaster. A few days ago, he posted a lengthy thread on Twitter about ‘teaching’ his nine-year-old daughter to use a can opener. According to his Tweets, he did this by refusing to feed her anything else until she worked out, on her own, how a can opener works.

I confess that when I read (and shared) the account, I saw it as a story about human ingenuity and perseverance. There were points about how tools come to be designed, and I do not think we should ever lose our wonder that young human beings can work out (after a few false starts) how to use such tools.

That’s not how everyone read it. To other people, Roderick was exhibiting classic bullying and abusive behaviour. He was a ‘sicko.’ It was eye-opening to re-read the thread in that light. Continue reading “#BeanDad and Online Harms”