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

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage