A very unlikely coalition in the fight for free speech

I would never have expected to find an ally in gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, and I guess he is just as surprised given what he told a national newspaper last week: “It is commendable that David Davis and the Christian Institute are prepared to work with a gay left-wing Green atheist and secularist like me.”

Thatchell believes the right to free speech is more important than personal politics and beliefs, and because of this he has become a member of a very unlikely coalition that wants to scrap Section Five of the Public Order Act. Even Tatchell appreciates the lunacy of a student being arrested for asking a policeman if he knew his horse was gay. (Thames Valley Police justified the arrest on the grounds that the student had made ‘homophobic' comments that were deemed offensive to people passing).

Human beings seem to have an instinctive need to silence anyone who questions the current received wisdom. Even more sadly, those we expect to defend our freedoms can allow the world to squeeze them into its mould too.

We saw yet another example of that when we were told that the Law Society had revoked its permission for Christian Concern to hold a marriage conference on its premises because of its traditional understanding of marriage. Chief Executive Andrea Williams summed it up neatly when she said the Law Society’s decision to close down debate on marriage represented a “fundamental misreading of the Equality Act”.

“Since when can debate be against diversity?” she continued. “This action by the professional body of thousands of solicitors across the UK, all of whom would be supportive of ‘free speech’, demonstrates how discussion on traditional views of marriage is being shut down before any change in the law to redefine marriage has come into force."

I couldn’t help contrasting the Law Society’s approach with the brave stance taken by Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. Chen is a remarkable character. He is blind and was illiterate until he was in his twenties but he has not only taught himself to read, he has also taught himself the intricacies of Chinese law.

Chen, it seems, is part of what is called the “weiquan movement”. It’s a group of “lawyers, activists, intellectuals and ordinary citizens who aim to push the boundaries of reform by using China’s existing laws and courts to defend human rights.” And they are overwhelmingly Christian.

It’s never easy being out of step with those around us but this will always remain a perpetual possibility for Christians because we know that Jesus is Lord whereas most people do not.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and an inescapable consequence of the gospel. We do not need to silence others by force. We need not fear insults any more than we should seek to legislate against blasphemy or for orthodoxy.

And if we are not vigilant we run the danger of repeating the horrors that Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes so graphically in “The Gulag Archipelego”.

In this remarkable book, Solzhenitsyn tells us how the state discovered (and removed) “the independent people”. He describes a district party conference that was presided over by a new secretary (the previous one had been arrested). At the conclusion of the conference someone proposed a tribute to Comrade Stalin and this led to tidal wave of applause that lasted for over ten minutes. No one had the courage to stop clapping until finally the director of the local paper factory “assumed a business-like expression and sat down in his seat”.

That small act of bravery cost him ten years in the Gulag but the human instinct for survival cost the peoples of the Soviet Union infinitely more than that. He was told, “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.” Thankfully there are always those who are willing to do just that.

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