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: His personal biography can be viewed here:

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.