Comment

If freedom of speech continues to be eroded, the future will be bleak for the Church

Peter Tatchell speaking at event at Westfield, Stratford

Spare a thought for Peter Tatchell, the well known campaigner. He’s recently been accused of being a racist and a “transphobe” by a student activist, who has offered no real evidence, as far as I can see, for her accusation.

Whatever you may think of Mr Tatchell – and Catholics may well remember his campaign that disrupted Church services some time ago – he comes over as both likeable and honest. This is after all the man who not only talked about the awfulness of Mugabe, but actually did something about it, and at great personal cost as well; he has campaigned on a huge range of issues, and given that he has never been reticent about any of his views, it is hard to think him as a devious racist who has now only been revealed as such.

Mr Tatchell’s response to the accusation is spot on, and worth quoting: “Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights.” In other words, this accusation of racism and transphobia, and the attempt to “no platform” him, is an attack on free speech.

It is for this reason the matter is so serious. Without free speech, no democracy can function. Democracy, which is more than just a system that allows elections, but rather a system in which the people are sovereign, has to be nourished and sustained by a proper, reasoned and ordered public conversation. Attempting to ban someone from the conversation, which is what has happened to Mr Tatchell, is an attack on the foundation of democracy.

Anti-democrats have always favoured censorship. They have banned newspapers or sought to control them; and they have exiled or killed people whose opinions they have thought challenging. True democrats welcome discussion: the only thing they ought to ban is those who wish to suppress free speech.

Contemporary Britain is a democracy, of course, but we need to be vigilant. We must not allow the tyranny of “no platforming” to prevail. Given the current predicament of Mr Tatchell, and the recent attempt to silence Dr Germaine Greer, all people of good will need to reassert the right to free speech. This is because free speech is right in itself. But I need hardly add that if the right to free speech is eroded, then the prospects for the Church and her freedom of expression, indeed her right to exist, will be bleak indeed.