The conviction and £1,000 fine imposed on a homophobic Christian street preacher in Glasgow has been condemned by the human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as “an attack on free speech and a heavy-handed, excessive response to homophobia”.
Shawn Holes, an American Baptist evangelist touring Britain, was fined £1,000 for telling passers-by in Glasgow city centre, “Homosexuals are deserving of the wrath of God – and so are all other sinners – and they are going to a place called hell.”
In court, he admitted breaching the peace on 18 March by “uttering homophobic remarks” that were “aggravated by religious prejudice”.
“Shawn Holes is obviously homophobic and should not be insulting people with his anti-gay tirades. He should be challenged and people should protest against his intolerance,” said Tatchell.
“However, in a democratic, free society it is wrong to prosecute him. Criminalisation is not appropriate. The price of freedom of speech is that we sometimes have to put up with opinions that are objectionable and offensive.
“Just as people should have the right to criticise religion, people of faith should have the right to criticise homosexuality. Only incitements to violence should be illegal.
“Mr Holes’s £1,000 fine is totally disproportionate. Even people who commit robberies and violent assaults sometimes get off with lighter penalties. This prosecution was heavy-handed and an inappropriate use of the law.
“If I had known about this prosecution in advance, I would have gone to court to defend Mr Holes’s right to freedom of expression and to urge that the charges against him be dropped.
“Even though I strongly disagree with his views on homosexuality, if he had decided to appeal against either the conviction or the sentence, I would have supported him.
“I urge the police and prosecuting authorities to concentrate on tackling serious homophobic hate crimes, instead of wasting public money on petty, distasteful homophobic ranters,” said Mr Tatchell.
And your humble blogger is inclined to agree. What the “breach of the peace” amounted to other than the utterance of the words, I don’t know. But I suspect it was nothing more than uttering the words, not, say, causing an affray or seriously frightening the horses.
New legislation introduced last week increased the penalties available for people convicted of “hate crimes” against groups such as gay and disabled people to the same level as race crimes. The question is: should this be so? Or should there be just one breach-of-the-peace law, irrespective of the subject being spoken about when the peace was breached – assuming it was breached at all in this case?
It’s not an easy one, and I daresay strong cases could be made for both arguments.
I tend to think that the proof of whether a crime has been committed ought to rest on what actually happened – e.g. did he cause people to do violence, or actually cause a rumpus that scared the hell out of passers-by, or disrupt someone else’s rightful activity? – and not what a person was talking about.
Would he have had to suffer this penalty if he was on a soapbox in Hyde Park, where people are used to seeing ranters and ravers? What if he were in a meeting hall expressing those views? Or in a pulpit, speaking from the conviction of his “faith”, nonsensical though that is?
When is a word crime a thought crime?