Can freedom of speech survive opposition to Same-Sex Marraige?
With the United Kingdom on the verge of an official acceptance of same-sex marriage, the hot topic has, evidently, revolved around the traditional arguments of both pro and anti-gay marriage activists. However, perhaps one should consider an alternative repercussion from this heated debate. This being that the bill could negatively impose upon a feature that is deeply entrenched within our broad vision of democracy. I am referring to our freedom of speech.
My concern is a result of a recent article I read from MP David Burrows. In brief, Burrows explained how he experienced a street preacher in Cambridge who spoke of his objection to the recent marriage bill. The interesting part was the response of people passing by. A member of the crowd shouted out that anyone who believed only in the tradition of a man and woman being allowed to marry should be sent to jail. This member of the crowd shouted, “Equality overrides free speech and your views are homophobic, intolerant and very offensive”, whilst explaining that they had called the police to report this “disturbance.” It provokes some deep considerations over a very serious question; will the same-sex marriage bill further undermine our freedom to express what we feel most passionate about?
It seems a common tendency to jump on board the bandwagon of our own British exceptionalism, which very much thrives upon our democratic way of life and historical roots for building liberty. Yet, in our day and age of intense political correctness, we must consider how much of our population currently conform to the accusations that were once made from one our most recognised leaders, Mr. Winston Churchill. For Churchill said the following,
“Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without it being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”
The questions over why we choose to possess this mentality are interesting. If anything, we must unearth its origins, in order to provide a greater context for understanding how we approach free speech in the present.
Western governments, for years, have boasted of maintaining a protective standard for free speech that has set the benchmark for the developing world to follow. Yet, as with any advanced society, free speech has also left the floor open for regulation. One measurement that was particularly popular with western governments, particularly during the height of both world wars, was the testing of “bad tendency.” This term has deep historical origins, with the prestigious legal scholar, Sir William Blackstone, providing one of its clearest definitions. In his Commentaries on the Laws of England he believed speech and writings would be deemed criminal of this measurement if they were of a “pernicious tendency.” In turn, such speeches and writings would be necessarily outlawed for the “preservation of peace and good order…the only solid foundations of civil liberty.” In other words, any idea that is deemed unfavourable to the majority of the public may be outlawed due to the prioritised consideration of public peace.
This broad measurement is something, in spite of our government’s denial, that is still used today The stress on public welfare is used to suppress potentially unfavourable or distasteful beliefs, with a complete disregard to the extent of truth in the words that are uttered. There are of course some special circumstances that verge on becoming more than just speech. For example, those that incite violence put themselves in a tough position to defend even from the most staunch libertarian. There is, of course, racism, in which hostility to such attitudes are a result from reflecting on the atrocities of history. However, it is clear that opposition to same-sex marriage is a minority view which could become endangered for the wrong reason. Should we outlaw one’s tendency to oppose this marriage bill? Certainly if we continue to use the draconian measurement of “bad tendency”, which is a worryingly loose term, we will continue to erode the beauty that is the marketplace of ideas. With this, we will also neglect the more desirable method of peaceful enlightenment.
Mr Burrows’ stance on same-sex marriage is irrelevant for this issue. What should elevate to the forefront is the need the need for clarity. If same-sex marriage confirmation is to be a formality in the U.K. then those who disapprove of the bill must know where their rights stand. It is why I commend the work of Burrows. He believes that the Equality Act must clarify that a belief in traditional marriage should not lead to discrimination. In addition, and the point I feel most passionately about, the Public Order Act must avoid criminalising supporters of traditional marriage. The right to express your beliefs is one of the cornerstones of a free society. There is a minority who would call for absolutist speech and a larger group on the other end of the spectrum, who would stress a “bad tendency” doctrine to extreme limits. All I ask is that one should accept the formality that same-sex marriage can not be accepted through coercion and repression. More importantly, we must not see our rights to free speech continuously erode. Forgetting this supposedly “minor” effect of the same-sex bill will, in turn, damage the rights of the minority objector.
Jak Allen is a student at the University of Kent. A geek of the U.S. Supreme Court and forever wanting to add an historian’s touch to affairs of the present.