TV star says defend free speech in ‘gay hate’ law

The comedian Rowan Atkinson has urged the House of Lords to vote against a Government attempt to delete a free speech protection from a ‘homophobic hatred’ offence.

The Government is using the Coroners and Justice Bill to delete the protection added by Parliament in May last year.

Mr Atkinson was speaking at a meeting on the issue held at the House of Lords on Tuesday.

An amendment to keep the free speech protection may be voted on in the Commons next week.

But the Government is expected to use its majority to force deletion through. The matter will then be passed to the House of Lords.

Mr Atkinson, famous for his roles in Blackadder and Mr Bean, told Peers in the House of Lords: “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.”

He added: “It would provide succour and reassurance to those of us in the creative world and I would plead for its retention.”

Mr Atkinson also criticised “hate speech” legislation in general.

He said: “The last thing that any academic, or cleric, or practitioner in creative writing wants to hear, is of police officers walking round with a tool box bulging with sanctions against speech and expression that ‘could be useful one day’.

“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’.”

The House of Lords meeting was convened by Lord Waddington, who successfully moved the free speech amendment last year.

Speaking after Tuesday’s meeting, Lord Waddington said: “Last year the House of Lords voted not once but twice to force the Government to accept a free speech clause in its controversial new ‘homophobic hatred’ offence.

“Many of my colleagues are shocked that the Government should be trying to repeal such a modest protection so soon after it was passed into law. However, I think the Government has got a fight on its hands.”

He continued: “Today, peers from across the House came together to declare their intention of resisting the Government. They are encouraged in their stance by support from Rowan Atkinson, Liberty, the Church of England, The Christian Institute and many others.

“Christian groups are particularly concerned that the homophobic hatred law will be unfairly used against them. After all, there have been plenty of examples of heavy-handed police intervention even before the new law.

“In recent months there has been a growing sense that devout Christians are being marginalised in British society. Repealing the free speech clause will only make things worse.”

During last year’s parliamentary debates on the homophobic hatred offence, a number of cases were highlighted to show the importance of a free speech protection.

Miguel Hayworth, 2008

A Christian street preacher in Manchester was silenced, taken into the back of a police van, questioned and detained for over an hour following a complaint of ‘homophobia’.

Miguel Hayworth had been publicly reading from the Bible, from Romans 1:17-32, when a member of the public complained. The officers later released Mr Hayworth and he was permitted to continue preaching.

Stephen Green, 2006

Stephen Green, a Christian campaigner, was arrested for handing out evangelistic tracts at a gay pride festival in Cardiff. Police admitted that he had not behaved in a violent or aggressive manner, but confirmed that officers arrested him because the leaflets contained biblical quotes about homosexuality.

Mr Green was held at a police station for four hours, questioned, charged and eventually committed for trial. The case against Mr Green was subsequently dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, 2006

A Member of the Scottish Parliament asked Strathclyde Police to investigate remarks made by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow.

The Archbishop had defended the institution of marriage and criticised civil partnerships in a church service.

Lynette Burrows, 2005

Lynette Burrows, an author and family-values campaigner, took part in a radio talk show about civil partnerships for homosexuals. Mrs Burrows said she did not believe that adoption by two gay men would be best for a child. Subsequently, a policewoman telephoned Mrs Burrows to speak to her about her comments.

The police officer said a ‘homophobic incident’ had been reported against her and that record of it would be kept by police. Mrs Burrows felt that the policewoman was pressurising her even though she had committed no crime.

Joe and Helen Roberts, 2005

Christian pensioners, Joe and Helen Roberts, were interrogated by police in 2005 because they had expressed their opposition to their local council spending public money on ‘gay rights’ projects.

After launching legal action, the couple eventually won an apology and damages from Lancashire Police and Wyre Borough Council. The police and the council also changed their procedures to avoid making the same mistake again.

Cambridge Christian Union, 2004

The Christian Union of the University of Cambridge was reported to the police following its distribution of St John’s gospel to students and hosting an evangelistic meeting where the Dean of Sydney Cathedral put forward “a traditional biblical view on homosexuality”.

The Bishop of Chester, 2003

In November 2003 the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster, was investigated by Cheshire Constabulary after he told his local newspaper that some homosexuals re-orientated to heterosexuality with the help of therapy.

A complaint was made to the police that his remarks were a ‘hate crime’, and the Bishop was berated in the media by the Chief Constable. The police passed a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, who decided not to prosecute because the Bishop had not broken any “current” laws.

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