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Politics – Free speech alliance

January 2016

The Christian Institute has joined with the Peter Tatchell Foundation and other human rights organisations to fight the government’s crackdown on free speech.

The Peter Tatchell Foundation, set up by the human rights campaigner and LGBT rights activist, is one of several organisations, including the National Secular Society, who believe the Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) will damage the right to freedom of speech.

Despite acknowledging the need to protect against militant extremism — especially in the light of terrorist threats — the campaign, called Defend Free Speech, believes EDOs as proposed go too far.

The Defend Free Speech group has been backed by former shadow home secretary David Davis MP, Caroline Lucas MP, and former chief constable Lord Dear, who will spearhead the campaign in the House of Lords.

The official parliamentary launch of the campaign took place in mid-November 2015, with a statement warning that the government’s proposals would ‘criminalise many legitimate campaigners and campaign groups, by unfairly labelling them “extreme”’.

Sweeping new powers

The group cautioned that ‘sweeping new powers’ would have a chilling effect on free speech, because the government had failed to set out a definition of what will be considered extreme, and this could allow it to clamp down on people even if they have not broken the law.

Simon Calvert, spokesman for the Christian Institute and campaign director of Defend Free Speech, said, ‘The campaign believes innocent people will fall foul of this unnecessary and dangerous piece of legislation.

‘It will criminalise those who hold unpopular, unfashionable or challenging views. This could include pro- and anti-religious groups, trade unionists and environmental campaigners. Indeed we have already seen police urging teachers to report on parents who go to anti-fracking protests’.

He added that the group was ‘deeply concerned’ by the government’s plans, saying, ‘The complete absence of safeguards and any clear definition of what is deemed to be extreme will have a chilling effect on free speech and campaigners.

‘We might be Britain’s most unlikely campaign group, but we are united in our belief that free speech is a vital civil liberty and must be protected. This legislation is badly conceived and will be bad for society’.

During 2015, Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake put in repeated requests to the then immigration and security minister James Brokenshire, asking for confirmation that the Home Office would ‘protect people’s right to legitimate religious belief’.

When the letter finally came to Mr Brake, Mr Brokenshire wrote: ‘There is a thread between extremism that promotes intolerance and hatred, and the actions of those who want to impose their values through violence’.

High-risk engagement

This, admittedly limited, alliance by the Christian Institute with militantly atheistic and immoral groups seems a step too far for an evangelical organisation to take, even in the cause of free speech. Time and opportunity will tell whether LGBT or secular ideas of ‘free speech’ are the same as evangelical Christians’, but on past evidence there is room for very considerable doubt on that point.

The Christian Institute does an excellent job and it is to be hoped that its directors will think twice before any further high-risk engagements of this nature. Surely the best place for alliance (where appropriate) with militantly antichristian groups is the electoral ballot box?

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