Banning the anti-gay bus advert is wrong. Free speech trumps offensiveness

In a free society there is no right to not be offended, and the right to free speech extends to those with whom we disagree, too.

 

The High Court violated an important principle of free of expression when it ruled today that Transport for London was justified in banning "ex-gay’ adverts on London buses.

The decision has been welcome by the gay lobby group Stonewall, but not by me.

I agree that the bus adverts - promoted and defended by fringe Christian groups - were homophobic and offensive. They insinuated that gay people can be cured of their homosexuality. This is untrue and misleading. However, the language of the adverts was not abusive, menacing or threatening.  

On balance, on the grounds of free speech, the adverts should not have been banned. 

In her ruling, the judge, Justice Lang, seemed to accept the suggestion that the wording risked increasing public prejudice and hate crime. This is doubtful. 

The banned adverts on London buses read: "Not Gay! Ex-Gay, Post-Gay and Proud. Get over it!"

The advert wording was not intemperate or inflammatory. It was wrong but polite. It was not stated in terms that would easily excite hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

The organisation that placed the adverts, Core Issues Trust, promotes the false idea that gay people can turn straight.

However, the adverts did not directly make this claim.

I disagree with the gay conversion therapies of the Core Issues Trust. I think they cause harm. They delude vulnerable LGBT people and give them false hope that they can change their sexual orientation. The ex-gay prospectus is false.

I have recently challenged the ideas and methodology of the Core Issues Trust, and will continue to do so - using reason, logic and empirical evidence to refute their claims.

Core Issues Trust is hypocritical. It would never demand or defend a similar message directed at the black, Jewish or disabled communities, urging them to disavow their identity and heritage. Such a message would rightly provoke public outrage. So why are the Core Issues Trust and their Christian fundamentalist supporters - like Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre - pushing this message to the LGBT community? It looks two-faced.

Justice Lang made her decision to uphold the advert ban on the grounds that they were gravely offensive to gay people. She is right. They are offensive but being offensive is not a legitimate basis for banning anything.

In a free society there is no right to not be offended. Almost anything that anyone says can potentially be deemed offensive by someone. The law should not cater to the sensitivities of any section of the public. If it did, many adverts, plays, books and films would be banned.

Given that Transport for London allowed Stonewall’s advert - "Some people are gay. Get over it!" - it seems double standards to ban the counter message of the Core Issues Trust.

Banning these adverts reminds me of the bad old days when gay advertisements were banned on the grounds that they were offensive. For decades, LGBT helplines, youth groups and campaign organisations faced bans on advertising their services.

It is not right for the LGBT community to turn around and adopt the oppressive, anti-free speech tactics of our past oppressors.

>Free speech is one of the most important of all human rights. It should only be limited in extreme circumstances, such as when people abuse it to incite violence or harass and intimidate others.

Free speech is for everyone - even those with whom we disagree.

Peter Tatchell is the director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation

London buses passing through Trafalgar Square. Photograph: Getty Images

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.


Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.


Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.