In 1895 Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour in English jails for the crime of homosexuality. The state had enacted laws to criminalise homosexuals and prosecute and jail them where possible.
Those oppressive laws are long gone from English society. And yet a new version of fundamentalism has been established in recent years, backing up intolerance with laws and jail sentences.
Here’s an example.
In April 2010 a man was arrested in England, charged with the crime of saying in public that he believes homosexuality is sinful, and hauled before a judge. Dale Mcalpine is a 42-year-old Christian preacher who went to a shopping centre to discuss his beliefs with any passer-by who’d listen.
Before long he was approached by young Police Community Support Officer, Sam Adams, who said he was gay and was the force’s local Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Liaison Officer. Armed with his impressive array of police titles and backed by thoroughly undemocratic laws, Adams proceeded to warn Mcalpine that he could be arrested if he made homophobic remarks. Mcalpine replied mildly that he wasn’t homophobic and had gay friends but that nevertheless he believed gay sex was sinful.
Adams then summoned police and had Mcalpine arrested. He was held in a police cell for seven hours, questioned, fingerprinted, submitted to a retina scan, had a DNA swab taken and was then charged.
For expressing a view he held.
Taken to court, he pleaded not guilty and said he would fight the charge.
After some time and some deliberation, the Crown Prosecution Service eventually decided to drop the charge against him.
Though that’s a good result, it’s just as outrageous to charge one man for saying what he thinks about gay sex as it is to prosecute another for being gay. Freedom of expression by definition means we all have to put up with views we disagree with in exchange for our right to express our own views. Freedom of expression is not about defending views we agree with and using all the apparatus of the state to suppress and silence those we object to.
Worryingly, British authorities have become seriously confused about the basic democratic principle of free speech, as Sam Adams – assisted by legislators – illustrated. Short of inciting violence, which he clearly wasn’t, Mcalpine, like Adams and the rest of us, has every right to believe – and say – what he likes about anything under the sun. Adams had the right to argue with him, laugh at him, walk away – but it’s a measure of the new British intolerance that, legally, he had the right to arrest him and get him charged. It’s a horrible ‘other side of the coin’ when those who were once the victims of oppressive laws now wield them to oppress others.
Yet, like Sam Adams, the local Chief Superintendent, Steve Johnson, of Cumbria Police, also failed completely to understand freedom of expression. He commented that while the police are “committed to upholding, the fundamental right to freedom of expression we are just as committed to….preventing people feeling alarmed or distressed…”
But it is not the job of police to prevent people feeling distressed when others exercise their right to free speech. If I, as a woman, hear someone say all women are gold-digging bitches I don’t, and shouldn’t, expect the police to protect my feelings. Nor would I be justified in trying to have them arrested. It’s a measure of Sam Adams’ dangerous intolerance that he did just that when Mcalpine’s view annoyed him.
For the moment the new British fundamentalism, which tries to criminalise “politically incorrect” social and religious views, is not entirely established. The legal apparatus is – unfortunately – in place to silence, prosecute and jail individuals but, as the decision in this case shows, there are still those who prefer freedom all round and understand that free speech means sometimes we’ll all hear something we disagree with.