Pride ban­ner was rude, crude — but how does it war­rant an in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the po­lice?

You don’t have to like the lan­guage, says Fionola Mered­ith, but we must all sup­port free speech

Belfast Telegraph - - VIEWPOINT -

It’s amaz­ing, in a so­ci­ety that re­mains rid­dled with all sorts of para­mil­i­tary law­less­ness — ex­tor­tion, drug deal­ing, pun­ish­ment at­tacks, forc­ing fam­i­lies out of their homes — that the po­lice found time last week to knock on the door of 24-year-old Ellie Evans and ask her to come in for ques­tion­ing. What ter­ri­ble thing had the young wo­man done? She had car­ried a home­made plac­ard at this year’s Belfast Pride pa­rade on which she had crudely writ­ten, in rain­bow-coloured felt-tip, ‘F*** the DUP’, in protest against the party’s stance on LGBT rights.

No­body, in­clud­ing Evans her­self, is deny­ing that the word she used is highly of­fen­sive to many peo­ple. But you don’t have to like what Evans wrote in or­der to be­lieve that the PSNI is guilty of a mas­sive over­re­ac­tion by call­ing her in to ac­count for her ac­tions and set­ting up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which re­mains on­go­ing.

I’m not sur­prised that the young wo­man found the ex­pe­ri­ence in­tim­i­dat­ing, and she be­lieves that the po­lice in­tended it to be so. Un­der what law are they in­ves­ti­gat­ing her? Do they fol­low up so as­sid­u­ously when para­mil­i­tary thugs step out­side the bound­aries of po­lite be­hav­iour?

The cops ap­par­ently acted af­ter an in­ter­ven­tion by DUP MLA Jim Wells, who seems to have a very loud and per­sis­tent bee in his bon­net when it comes to gay is­sues.

Wells made a com­plaint to the PSNI about the plac­ard, and rather oddly claimed that “there’s ab­so­lutely no place for that type of lan­guage to be aimed at North­ern Ire­land’s largest po­lit­i­cal party”, as though sheer elec­toral bulk was a nat­u­ral de­fence against rude words.

The largest po­lit­i­cal party it­self sub­se­quently re­leased a state­ment say­ing that “this com­plaint was not sub­mit­ted by the DUP”, which I took to mean that Jim was buzzing away by him­self on this one.

Why have the po­lice come plod­ding heavy-footed to Ellie Evans’ door now? Let’s not for­get that the event in ques­tion hap­pened more than two months ago. And Evans didn’t ac­tu­ally carry the plac­ard for the du­ra­tion of the pa­rade. Pride or­gan­is­ers con­fis­cated the sign from her on the grounds that it did not “pro­mote rea­soned de­bate” and “breached the Pa­rades Com­mis­sion guide­lines”.

Evans wasn’t happy about the sit­u­a­tion: she had pre­vi­ously car­ried a sim­i­lar sign at the Lon­don Pride pa­rade with­out any bother, and she claimed that the Belfast pa­rade of­fi­cials “ripped” the plac­ard out of her hands.

But Belfast is far, far away from Lon­don po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally as much as ge­o­graph­i­cally, and I can un­der­stand why the lo­cal Pride or­gan­is­ers, per­haps wary of giv­ing am­mu­ni­tion to their en­e­mies, rushed in to whisk away her sign.

As Belfast Pride chair Sean O’Neill pointed out at the time: “We have more le­gal re­stric­tions on our pa­rade than any other Pride in Western Europe and yet LGBT peo­ple here cur­rently have fewer rights than in any other ju­ris­dic­tion in Western Europe.”

It’s true that Evans’ mes­sage was pretty crude and child­ish. It clearly wasn’t an at­tempt to en­gage in rea­soned de­bate. It was a howl of rage against a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal party with whose poli­cies she ve­he­mently dis­agrees. But was it a hate crime? Of course not. It would be ab­surd, as well as dra­co­nian and highly in­tol­er­ant, to por­tray a mild act of protest against a po­lit­i­cal party such as car­ry­ing a ban­ner — how­ever of­fen­sive the word on it — as a pros­e­cutable of­fence.

For a start, the DUP is not a pro­tected group un­der the law, so the term ‘hate crime’ is ir­rel­e­vant. But

let’s not get overly le­gal­is­tic about this. The point is that free­dom of ex­pres­sion, not the right not to be of­fended, is what all of us should be stand­ing up for here, in­clud­ing those in the DUP — and I do hope they ex­ist — who un­der­stand the need to pro­tect that most pre­cious, vi­tal lib­erty. It truly is in all our in­ter­ests, whether we’re gay or straight, re­li­gious or non-re­li­gious.

This is why it’s never a good idea to try to si­lence your op­po­nents, how­ever jus­ti­fied you may feel. As Ira

Glasser, for­mer di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union, points out: “Speech bans are like poi­son gas: seems like a good idea when you have your tar­get in sight — but the wind shifts and blows it back on us.”

Ha­tred has be­come a dirty word, seen as some­thing to be feared and re­pu­di­ated and avoided at all costs. But free­dom of ex­pres­sion has to in­clude the free­dom to ex­press ha­tred of things we pas­sion­ately dis­agree with, with­out the po­lice pop­ping round to pay us a not-so-friendly visit.

The anti-DUP ban­ner also ap­peared at Lon­don Pride in July. There was no po­lice re­ac­tion

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