One of the difficulties of being a free speech advocate is that you inevitably find yourself defending people you don't agree with. That is, after all, the whole point. I may not like the views and opinions being expressed, or the way they are expressed, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the only ground I have for demanding the right to say whatever I want is to make sure I defend your right to say whatever you want too.
Most people would say they agree with that. That is, until they are faced with an actual person saying particular things they really don't like. But that is the real test of whether your principle is worth anything at all. It's not the easy cases in which we either agree, or are indifferent, to what is being said. Our commitment to free speech is only really tested when we're faced with words and expressions we really despise. We're only really advocates of free speech if we are prepared to accept the right of others to say such things.
And so we come to the latest round of, 'I support free speech but...' This time it is American Evangelical hate-figure, Franklin Graham. Graham is known for about four things: (1) being the son of Billy Graham; (2) being an Evangelical (3) being a supporter of Donald Trump and – as a corollary of some of those – (4) saying things that liberal people really don't like hearing about other religions and gay people.
Now, you may or may not agree with Graham's politics. You may or may not agree with his religious views and the way he puts them across. But that he should be permitted to voice them was once a universally accepted basic right. Not any longer.
Graham was due to speak in Liverpool, as part of an eight-city tour, at ACC Liverpool. But following a campaign by "equality campaigners" (who, ironically, are not concerned about equal rights for others in the matter of free speech) the venue has cancelled Graham on the grounds, it 'may incite hateful mobilisation and risk the security of our LGBTQ+ community'.
The Guardian go on to report:
The ACC said in a statement: "Over the past few days we have been made aware of a number of statements which we consider to be incompatible with our values.
"In light of this we can no longer reconcile the balance between freedom of speech and the divisive impact this event is having in our city. We have informed the organisers of the event that the booking will no longer be fulfilled."
Joe Anderson, Liverpool's mayor, said the cancellation was the right decision. "Our city is a diverse city and proud of our LGBTQ+ community and always will be," he tweeted.
"We can not allow hatred and intolerance to go unchallenged by anyone, including by religious groups or sects."
And so lobby groups, supported by the Mayor of Liverpool, have successfully managed to cancel a speaker because they do not like what he has to say.
Of course, should campaigners wish to mount a protest against the talk, they would be perfectly within their rights to do so. Graham does not, and should not, have a perfect right to speak and never be challenged. But it does seem problematic that, in the name of preventing a possible (and, I should stress, the possibility seems vanishingly small) mobilisation of hatred against LGBT+ people that might threaten their security, Graham is not allowed to speak.
I am not even sure whether campaigners are arguing that there is a genuine threat of physical violence should the event take place or whether they are saying, as is de rigueur, that words are of themselves violent and would threaten their security. The second suggestion is total nonsense, the first would be more reasonable. But it is standard practice not to ban those who might say things that lead to violence but to make sure there proper security is in place so that words may be spoken and violence not break out. That is why, for example, Britain First and their ilk are permitted to hold their evidently provocative and goading marches and talks in towns like mine. They are not banned, adequate security is put in place to avoid the kind of violence they seem intent to incite.
But that aside, campaigners are more than welcome to protest. They are equally free to hold their own counter-talk in which they rally their own people against the views and ideas propagated by Graham. But it does seem a contravention of free speech to cancel someone for saying (not doing) what you don't really want to hear.
The problem is further compounded for ACC Liverpool. Clearly, they booked the event with Graham and were happy for it to go ahead before campaigners sought to shut it down. But now, they will have to explain how their decision is not a contravention of the Equalities Act and this is not a cancellation because of political or religious beliefs held i.e. discrimination on these grounds. If the venue would permit another group to use the venue, they will have to explain how they have not discriminated against the person.
They could, of course, argue that they are not discriminating against Graham (or the organisers of the event) but against the messaging. But unless Franklin Graham has called the event to propagate the view that 'Islam is evil', same-sex relationships are sinful or to advocate specifically for conversion therapy (the only issues mentioned in the article that apparently make him objectionable to them), it will be hard to argue they are discriminating against an idea.
The venue seemed happy to take the booking until campaigners pointed out past statements on other issues. They then decided Graham was persona non grata. One would imagine, if the particular event was designed to propagate views that are contrary to their values, they would never have accepted the booking to begin with. That they did, suggests the event itself is not objectionable. Which means they are finding Graham objectionable specifically because of his views which, in turn, makes it hard not to perceive as direct discrimination against the person.
Now, as I say, I am not writing to defend Franklin Graham's views particularly. You can agree or disagree as you like. But this should be concerning to all of us because it is cases like these that determine whether we are permitted to say what we want too. Should it be deemed acceptable to cancel Franklin Graham because his views are deemed unpalatable, what right have any of the rest of us to be heard either? If we cancel this event, and we allow the removal of service of a venue designed for events because of views, where does that end?
If we value our right to speak, and if we think free speech matters, we should be bothered about this case. I would be saying the same if this were an event by the local Satanic Society. We cannot call for things to be cancelled just because we don't like them. That way lies nothing but bland utterances of culturally acceptable orthodoxy. It will kill debate and discussion, ending free speech in reality. Whatever your particular views on the things Franklin Graham says, we should all fight tooth and nail for his right to say them. That is the only ground on which we can guarantee our right to say anything back, should we so wish.
Stephen Kneale is pastor at Oldham Bethel Church, an FIEC church in the Greater Manchester area of the UK which is also affiliated to the North West Partnership. He holds qualifications in History & Politics (BA, University of Liverpool), Religious Studies & Philosophy (PGCE, Edge Hill University) and Theology (MA, Kings Evangelical Divinity School). This article was first published online on his blog Building Jerusalem and is printed here with permission.