‘This is not China’ says MP after PSNI arrest open air preacher following ‘hate speech’ allegation

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson has likened the PSNI arrest of a gospel preacher in Larne this week to the suppression of free speech in China - and challenged the service not to set itself up as a judge of non-criminal free speech.

Saturday, 14th August 2021, 6:30 am
Updated Saturday, 14th August 2021, 2:54 pm
The PSNI arrest preacher Ryan Williamson in Larne on Tuesday.

DUP MP Mr Wilson was speaking after Loughbrickland man Ryan Williamson was arrested while preaching in Larne on Tuesday. He says police arrived because he had mentioned homosexuality. He was released 30 minutes later for report to prosecutors.

Mr Wilson said it was clear from video footage of the incident on social media that “police probably didn’t handle this very well”.

He said police could have waited until Mr Williamson finished preaching before speaking to him, that no hate speech was apparent on the video - and that four police cars turned up.

“Clearly police resources are not stretched in Larne if they can produce that number of police officers for an incident,” he said.

“But more worrying is the response from the police in the News Letter that it doesn’t have to be a criminal offence [for police involvement] - the police will investigate where they believe offensive language is being used.

“What is the definition of offensive language and since when were the police authorised to decide what somebody said or didn’t say is offensive?

“If it is criminal then of course they should investigate it. But if it is simply that somebody doesn’t like what somebody has said - well then - we don’t live in China - not yet anyway.”

The officer who arrested Mr Williamson approached him and directed him to stop preaching on account of “hate speech”. However Chief Inspector Stephen Murray yesterday insisted that the arrest was “not related to the content of any speech”.

He said police had recieved a complaint of “hate speech” and another of anti-social behaviour.

“Officers attended the location and attempted to speak with a number of males, all of whom refused to engage,” he said. “After several warnings, one man, aged 44, was arrested. I would reiterate that the arrest was on suspicion of disorderly behaviour. This related to the individual’s behaviour towards officers. The arrest was not related to the content of any speech.”

Citing concerns over freedom of speech, high profile UK LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell told the News Letter on Thursday that the arrest was “not justified”.

The News Letter contacted a wide range of organisations and parties on Thursday and Friday but could not find anybody to defend the arrest - or advocate a clamp down on such preaching.

Alliance Party Chief Whip and North Down MLA Andrew Muir, who is also openly gay, said: “While this is no longer a live case, it does no good to speculate as to what happened in Larne earlier this week,” he said. “We live in a free and open society, where freedom of religion and from religion is valued in equal measure.”

Boyd Sleator, Coordinator of Northern Ireland Humanists, also took a similar view.

“Without having seen what prompted the police to approach this man in the first place, it is impossible for us to comment on this specific incident,” he said. “However, more generally, we are strong supporters of freedom of speech, including the right to offend, provided that that speech does not trip over into incitement to hatred or violence.”

Patrick Corrigan of Amnesty International said he could not judge the particular case, as he was not present.

But he said: “Freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds, including those that may be deeply offensive. While international law protects free speech, there are instances where speech can legitimately restricted under the same law – such as when it violates the rights of others, or advocates hatred and incites discrimination or violence.

“Governments have a duty to prohibit hateful, inciteful speech but the power to do so should not be abused to silence peaceful dissent.

“Northern Ireland’s LGBT+ community deserves protection from hate crime and incitement to hatred. But the police must be careful not to overstep the boundary of what is allowable by law, given our rights under the Human Rights Act - including to express views which many would find offensive.”

The Rainbow Project was also invited to comment.

On Thursday Mr Williamson and friends were preaching again, this time in Enniskillen.

The Impartial Reporter reported that a group of three young women held a peaceful protest against them.

The trio – Orla Brent, Noelle Thornton and Jamie Farmer – all class themselves as LGBT+ allies, and one of the women identifies as a member of the LGBT+ community.

Noelle said: “They’ve [the preachers] told us that we need to repent, because of who we love; they’ve said that love becomes between a man and a woman, not between man and man, and woman or woman, and [said such love] is ‘a choice’.”

Jamie added: “What they [the preachers] are doing is a hate crime.”

The Impartial Reporter said that the trio enjoyed much support from people passing by. However Mr Williamson said they too had been given much encouragement by locals.

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