Government slammed for trying to stifle free speech

A national newspaper columnist has welcomed the retention of a free speech protection in the ‘homophobic hatred’ offence, and criticised the Government for trying to remove it.

Philip Johnston, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said that Lord Waddington’s free speech clause, which makes clear that criticising homosexual conduct is not, in itself, a crime, is a “basic restatement of freedom of expression”.

On Wednesday the House of Lords voted in supoport of the clause by 179 votes to 135. In the House of Commons the next day Justice Secretary Jack Straw accepted the Lords vote.

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the Government was “very disappointed” at this outcome, but Mr Johnston praised it as an “important blow for free speech”.

He also attacked the Government for trying to “stifle strongly held religious views”.

Mr Johnston gave examples to show why the clause was necessary, mentioning cases of Christians and others who have been questioned by police over their views on homosexual conduct.

He said: “These instances include a grandmother, Pauline Howe, who was visited by two constables because she wrote to her local council to complain about a gay rights march and what she considered a “public display of indecency”.

“She was told she might have committed a “hate crime”.”

He also highlighted the case of Joe and Helen Roberts, who were interrogated by police because they complained about their local council’s ‘gay rights’ policy.

Mr Johnston posed the question: “Why did the Government fight tooth and nail to try to remove from the Statute Book a measure intended to protect the innocent and guide the police away from making so many absurd judgments because they think that is what the law requires?”

He criticised the “venom with which members of the Government attacked this basic restatement of freedom of expression”, saying their attitude caused him to wonder if they had “taken leave of their senses”.

Singling out Justice under-secretary Claire Ward for criticism, he said her comments about the free speech clause amounted to “a sneering reference to a principle that it is supposedly Parliament’s duty to uphold”.

He continued: “This Government has never understood that it cannot legislate away bigotry and intolerance; nor should it seek to stifle strongly held religious views.

Mr Johnston added that without free speech protection the law became a means of “suppressing thoughts or opinions because a particular party or pressure group does not like them.”

He added: “Well, they have to live with them in a free society”.

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