Writing for PinkNews.co.uk, Adrian Tippetts says it was wrong of the police to arrest US preacher Tony Miano under Section 5 of the Public Order Act following a complaint about his homophobic street sermon.
There might have been good reasons for the police to have a word with American street preacher Tony Miano as he bellowed his sermon on sexual immorality to disinterested passers-by outside a Wimbledon shopping centre last week. The volume levels, perhaps, or his location inches from the kerb, inconveniencing passengers stepping on and off the buses just behind him.
However, it was his views on homosexuality that attracted the police’s attention and led to his arrest and detention under Section 5 of the Public Order Act, after a complaint by a member of the public offended at his “good news”.
According to the transcript of the police interview, Mr Miano appears to be an equal opportunist, denouncing a host of sexual taboos, proscribed in 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12, including adultery, looking at someone with lust, sex before marriage, masturbation as well as just homosexuality.
Undoubtedly, Mr Miano was inconsiderate. His message would have been deeply unpleasant, especially to victims of homophobic abuse. It might sound tempting to simply stamp out any verbal expression of homophobia, racism or sectarianism. We all know these to be wrong, don’t we? Wouldn’t life be easier if we didn’t upset anyone’s feelings?
Everyone loses out when we deny this right, not just “even” but especially in the case of those views we deem “unpleasant”. As Tom Paine wrote in the introduction to the Age of Reason, he who denies to another the right of his own opinion “makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it”. The preacher lost his freedom to express his opinion that Monday afternoon; everyone lost their right to listen, to challenge each other’s claims, to change their minds and to sharpen their arguments. Prejudices unexpressed are likely to fester and grow precisely because they go unchallenged. The unchallenged extremist wins sympathy as a martyr of the “thought police” without any consideration of his arguments. It means another tale of persecution will echo around right-wing media networks for months.
Thanks to lobbying by the National Secular Society, the Peter Tatchell Foundation, and the Christian Institute, Section 5 of the Public Order Act will no longer criminalise use of insulting words or insulting behaviour. And about time too: the law already protects against discrimination, incitement and violence. Section 5 led to the arrest of Outrage activists who protested against Islamist extremists who called for gay people to be put to death, youths who derided Scientology and joked about a police horse being “gay”, a pensioner for placing a poster in the window calling religious stories “fairy tales”, animal rights protesters covering toy animals in red dye and a number of Christian preachers – most scandalously, Harry Hammond. They were deemed to be offensive not by individuals, not by gay people, but by the police. It criminalised and stifled free, honest expression that was, at most, mildly inconvenient to others. The police officer arresting Tony Miano seemed to have the idea that Section 5 allowed him to interrogate the preacher’s beliefs and conscience – does he consider “two males holding hands to be sinners?”
“When a man believes that any stick will do, he at once picks up a boomerang,” said GK Chesterton. And by stamping out free expression in the name of offence, the boomerang hits the progressives in the face. Homophobes and theocrats have feelings too: whose should count more? There are some who are offended by our very existence. Protecting feelings excuses the perpetrators of violence and harassment of, say, a couple kissing or holding hands, “because they were flaunting it.” How do western leaders convince Mr Putin that Russia’s anti-gay laws banning Pride festivals and all form of expression supporting same-sex relationships are draconian, when they are a logical consequence of protecting feelings? It is considered “racist” or “colonialist” to even speak out against Islamist homophobes. The fact that I feel obliged to state the obvious, that I specifically mean a minority of bigots and their apologists within their community, shows the extent to which the rot has set in.
I thank Mr Miano for exposing double standards. The offending verses that led to his arrest appear in a book found in every church, synagogue and school in the land. I own four copies of that book: why not prosecute me too? His preaching was a slightly coarser version of any teaching on sex and relationships to be expected in a Catholic school. Isn’t it odd how a preacher cannot speak his mind in a public place to adults who have the freedom to answer back or walk away, while in some schools, the teacher has the right to expose captive children, who cannot challenge authority, to the very same ideas? Who of these is doing the more harm?
He challenges the marriage registrar or bed and breakfast owner who out of “conscience” refuses to serve the gay couple, but makes no inquiry into the sexual history or marital status of the straight couple. He challenges married divorcee MPs and Daily Telegraph journalists who obsess about marriage equality. Still, I question his consistency. He says that homosexuality, fornication and murder are all equally punishable. Would he readily tell the mother of a victim of gangland killing that the murderer of her son was no more sinful than two males holding hands in the street? Actually, I wouldn’t put it past him.
The improvement of the human condition through the Enlightenment project has depended on free expression and the appeal to reason, claiming rights by defeating poor arguments with better arguments. Hurt feelings are inevitable but they are a small price to pay.
I part two I will look at how we can distinguish good ideas from bad ones, the need to apply ‘conversational intolerance’ and how to deal with the placard-waving protester at Pride in a more imaginative way than blowing a whistle.
Adrian Tippetts is a freelance journalist, human rights campaigner and PR consultant specialising in the graphics industry.