LGBT row: Peter Tatchell rejects PSNI arrest of preacher on anti-gay ‘hate speech’ allegation
Leading gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said he can see “no justification” for the arrest of an NI evangelist while preaching on the street.
He was comenting on the detention of Loughbrickland businessman Ryan Williamson, who was held after refusing to stop preaching in Larne.
While the PSNI last night insisted it respects people’s right to free speech, it also told the News Letter officers will investigate even non-criminal “offensive” viewpoints, treating them as “hate incidents”.
It is just the latest of many examples of free speech being put in the spotlight in the UK, amid concern that people face being censored and ostracised if somebody takes offence at something they said.
In Northern Ireland, efforts are now afoot to expand the reach of “hate crime” laws and outlaw gay “conversion therapy” – which some fear could make quoting the Bible or praying criminal offences.
Mr Williamson said he has been preaching on the streets for 13 years, and has done so in Larne “for the past few years”.
He added that “it’s really only this year that the PSNI have been spuriously on our case,” particularly when it came to airing conservative views on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues.
“They must be under severe pressure... that if anybody says anything that is deemed offensive about homosexuality that they will come out onto the streets against preachers”.
Video footage online shows a male police officer with a female officer approaching four preachers and accusing them of “hate speech”.
Mr Williamson said police persisted and arrested him for alleged disorderly behaviour.
However he said whilst in the police car for 30 minutes the officers debated the arrest, and called their senior office for advice, before de-arresting him. He immediately returned to preaching.
The group claim that the arrest emboldened members of the public to then subject them to sustained verbal abuse and to smash their speaker.
Peter Tatchell is arguably the most prominent and long-running campaigner for gay rights in the UK, with his activism dating back to the early 1970s.
He viewed videos of he incident involving Mr Williamson, and told the News Letter: “I strongly disagree with the street preacher’s anti-gay views, but I can see no justification for his arrest.
“As far as I am aware, he was not abusing, threatening or harassing anyone.
“In a free society, disagreeable opinions should be challenged but not subjected to heavy-handed police action.
“I am sure the PSNI meant well but they appear to have overstepped the law in this case.”
Mr Tatchell made headlines in 2016 when he changed his mind over the Ashers gay cake case; having initially supported legal action against the bakery, he came to oppose it on free speech grounds.
TUV leader Jim Allister accused the PSNI of “mishandling” the situation in Larne, adding: “Freedom of speech embraces not just the palatable, but that which to some might be unpalatable.”
The PSNI said: “Police in Larne received a complaint of hate speech and another of anti-social behaviour in relation to males preaching in the Main Street area of the town on Tuesday.
“Officers attended the location and attempted to speak with four men, all of whom refused to engage.
“After several warnings, one man, aged 44, was arrested on suspicion of disorderly behaviour, taken to a nearby police vehicle and spoken to by officers about his actions towards police.
“He was subsequently released for [a] report to the PPS.”
Asked what safeguards for freedom of speech the PSNI recognises, the force said: “‘Freedom of expression’ is protected under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, and the PSNI is human rights-compliant.
“The PSNI has developed programmes to ensure that all our officers and staff understand the principles of human rights and the obligations placed upon them.”
The force went on to say that whilst some views may be “perceived as offensive” they “may not necessarily constitute a criminal offence”.
But despite this, it went on to say that they will still investigate such non-crimes, calling them “hate incidents”.
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