Interesting timing for Fred Phelps’ bunch of loonies to be trying a second time to export their particular brand of abuse to the UK:
Preachers from the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church have said they plan to picket a London primary school which ran lessons about gay relationships.
The fundamentalist Phelps family, best known for their chants of ‘God Hates Fags’ became notorious after a Louis Theroux BBC documentary about them.
They picket the funerals of US soldiers, claiming that the military are servants of a government that permits homosexuality.
A picket schedule on their website announces they will be at the George Tomlinson School in Leytonstone next Friday at 2pm.
Around 30 parents took their children out of the school in February to protest over a week of special lessons to commemorate LGBT History Month.
The group states: “God hates the UK and the Tomlinson School fag tyranny, where conscientious parents face religious persecution for withdrawing their children on lying fag so-called history.
“This is yet another warning to the UK to repent of their manifold sins of the flesh, or perish.”
Lunacy, sheer lunacy, and there isn’t a rational argument to be had with the truly insane. As queasy as I am about people being banned from this country merely for thinking unpalatable thoughts, let’s hope the Home Office at least remains consistent with the Phelps clan (not so easy, considering how many of them there are) and stops them from entering Britain in the first place. But where do you draw the line with free speech? Rowan Atkinson would have you believe there needn’t be one as far as the law goes:
Comedian Rowan Atkinson has criticised hate speech legislation, saying that the House of Lords must vote against a government attempt to remove a free speech clause in a homophobic hatred offence.
The Blackadder actor, addressing a meeting of Lords on Tuesday, warned of creating a culture of “censoriousness” by removing free speech.
He said: “Do I think that I would risk prosecution because of jokes or drama about sexual orientation with which I might be involved if we don’t have the free speech clause?
“Not really – but I dread something almost as bad – a culture of censoriousness, a questioning, negative and leaden attitude that is encouraged by legislation of this nature but is considerably and meaningfully alleviated by the free speech clause.”
“I do not believe that legislation of such a censorious nature as that of hate speech, carrying as it does the risk of a seven-year jail sentence for saying the wrong thing in the wrong way, can ever by justified merely by the desire to ‘send the right message’.”
He cited Christian groups as being “particularly concerned” the law will be used against them, adding that “heavy-handed police intervention” had been used before in instances of groups condemning gays and lesbians.
I think his position has one key strength and one key weakness. The weakness is in the final sentence – there hasn’t been ‘heavy-handed’ police action against homophobic Christians – far from it. He goes on to say that free speech should be restricted when people attack qualities in another which are intrinsic – attacking someone for the colour of their skin is ridiculous and should be inhibited, when religion is merely a chosen belief. Well sexual orientation is intrinsic – should incitement to homophobic hatred then not be legislated against?
Except the strong point he makes is very strong. New Labour likes to legislate compulsively to enable what it likes and prevent what it doesn’t, which sends out the message that communities are not able to make these decisions for themselves. Issues such as these didn’t used to be codified, nor did they need to be to be understood to be wrong. The government shouldn’t always interfere in how communities come to manage bad behaviour, because it robs them of the ability to self-manage. It’s a problem which is adding to the atomisation of society and is neutering our culture. What to do then with the Phelps clan? Waltham Forest Council says:
“Waltham Forest council wants to promote tolerance in our schools by teaching children everyone in our society is of equal value. This is a core part of the national curriculum for all schools in the country.
“We are supporting teachers and schools in taking positive and innovative steps to develop children’s ability to respect people’s differences.”
So we essentially have a clash between diversity and free speech. The question is then whether the restriction of free speech is successful in promoting diversity, or if Atkinson is right and ends up doing the opposite. He himself says:
“The freedom to criticise ideas, any ideas – even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society.”
Indeed, and it should be, but criticising someone (be it an individual or a group) for who they are is manifestly wrong. Whatever legislation gets passed must be written in such a way as to allow police and courts discretion in deciding what is hate speech and what is not. Comedy and satire for example are obviously not the same thing as incitement to hatred, and legislation should make this clear. Atkinson should for instance be allowed to make gay jokes – to lampoon, to satirise, but the moment he crosses the line Iris Robinson flouted last year (and why on earth is she not facing charges for it?) and incites hatred he should be stopped. As should the Phelps’.