Shutting Down Free Speech is Unacceptable

Shutting Down Free Speech is Unacceptable

There has been a major push to derail Franklin Graham’s 2020 Tour of the United Kingdom, with all venues due to host him announcing in quick succession that they were canceling his bookings.

Graham announced last year that he would be visiting eight cities across the U.K. to share the Gospel message following a successful event in Blackpool in 2018.

There had been some controversy in the lead-up to the 2018 event when ads were taken off local buses on the basis that they were “offensive” (even though the ads simply said, “Time for Hope!”).

Graham has been outspoken in his views on homosexuality, Islam and Donald Trump, which led some members of Parliament to call for him to be barred from the U.K. on the basis that he was a “hate preacher.” Ultimately, the three-day event in Blackpool went ahead without issue, with thousands of people attending.

In the run-up to the 2020 Tour, protesters have written to venues urging them to cancel Graham’s bookings. With pressure mounting, the venues due to host the evangelistic Tour had canceled Graham’s booking by early February.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Graham’s views, there are three very troubling aspects to these developments. The first is that these cancellations have been justified, for the most part, in the name of tolerance and equality. Some venues have even suggested that hosting him might breach their legal obligations.

In reality, the cancellations have been prompted by groups that are offended by Graham’s previous comments, which are simply not the focus of his upcoming Tour. There has been no mention of the fact that his 2018 event in Blackpool went ahead without issue. The strong wording of the statements indicate that they are conscious decisions by the venues to appease the protestors. 

Tolerance must be a two-way street. Having public officials applauding—or ensuring—the silencing of speech with which they disagree is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

Second, there is a real possibility that these venues are acting unlawfully by canceling the bookings on the basis of Graham’s beliefs. The law is clear that you cannot deny service to someone on the basis of their beliefs. Venues are free to clarify that they do not endorse the views or beliefs of those hosting events, but they cannot legally say that someone’s religious beliefs disqualify them from using the venue.

Finally, it is very worrying to see the domino effect that has played out since the ACC’s initial public announcement in Liverpool. These venues would have known about the opposition to the bookings for months, but as soon as one of them said that they would be canceling the booking, the others quickly caved, perhaps unlawfully. It shows just how strong the pressure to conform can be.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Franklin Graham’s 2020 Tour. While replacement venues might emerge, there has been a suggestion that legal action might be taken against the venues, which could prove particularly embarrassing for the Sheffield Arena after it had initially recognized the free speech issues at stake.

One can only imagine the outcry if the Sheffield Arena had canceled Green Day’s appearance in 2017, after they led an “anti-Trump” chant at the American Music Awards, on the basis that their views were “repulsive.” There can be no double standard when it comes to freedom of expression. Whether or not you agree with Green Day or Graham, we start moving in a bad direction when we look to silence people who have expressed things with which we disagree.  ©2020


This article first appeared in Premier Christianity magazine, online at Used by permission.

Laurence Wilkinson is London-based legal counsel for ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organization.

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