Double Standards on Free Speech

by Daniela Ellerbeck
21 June 2017

by Michael SwainExecutive Director of FOR SA

In a recent “open letter”, Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players of the modern era and a well-known LGBT activist, slammed former tennis great Margaret Court for her comments on same-sex marriage and an article she wrote expressing concern that a child born to a high profile lesbian couple will grow up deprived of a father.  Court, who became a Christian pastor after she ended a tennis career that was so illustrious that the Melbourne tennis arena was named the Margaret Court Tennis Stadium in her honour, also said that she wanted to “champion the rights of the family over the rights of the individual to engineer social norms and produce children into their relationships”.  A storm of outrage followed, with calls to strip away her name from the Stadium.  As Navratilova threatened in her open letter in which she called Court a “racist and a homophobe”: “We celebrate free speech, but that doesn’t mean it is free of consequences”.

This latest incident is just another in a long line of examples which shows that there is little understanding of what free speech actually means.  Navratilova is correct that free speech has consequences and the primary one is that this right exists to protect people so that they can say whatever they want, providing it does not amount to an advocacy of hatred that constitutes an incitement to violence.  At least, that should be what the right to free speech defends.  However, we increasingly live in a world where if you say something that some people find offensive because they disagree with its premise or (as in this case) because it contradicts the lifestyle they have chosen, you can be severely sanctioned and shut down. This antagonism is particularly focused against people who express Christian views and values based upon centuries of accepted tradition and wisdom, which is increasingly viewed as intolerant and bigoted by those who seem oblivious to the double standard that they are applying.

In a recent UK case, two street preachers were arrested under Public Order laws for quoting Jesus’ definition of marriage and declaring that He is “the way, the truth and the life”.  The Prosecutor argued that quoting parts of the King James Bible in the context of modern British society “must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter”.   He argued that free speech must yield to the multi-cultural reality of modern Britain and that there was a clear threat to violence due to the words of the preachers and their implied criticism of Islam. This view was upheld by the Court and the preachers were fined over R30,000 each.  Yet when hundreds of protesters march through London with banners saying “Slay those who insult Islam”, this was defended as their right to peaceful protest and those who criticized this were labelled as “racist” and “Islamophobes”.

Double Standards in SA:

Closer to home, well known Christian motivational speaker Gretha Wiid is in hot water since it was revealed that a section of one of her books which talks to young girls about puberty, sexuality, etc states as follows: “Some say that gay people are born gay. That’s something I disagree with. I believe with my whole heart that God made men and women to love each other…”  Following an outcry from LGBT activists who allege that her statements amounts to “hate speech” against homosexual people, this case is now being investigated by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC).  One of the “holy cows” of the LGBT argument is that homosexuality is no more a choice than the colour of your skin, so to suggest otherwise inevitably brings down a storm of protest.  She has been accused of “spout[ing] her own bigoted, ignorant and biased views” and her publication called “rubbish” and “insidious”, yet these views are clearly seen as fair comment whereas Wiid’s biblically-based views are under threat of official sanction.

Another case comes in the aftermath of the Zizipho Pae incident, the former Vice President of the UCT SRC who posted on her personal Facebook page the comment, “We are institutionalising and normalising sin. May God have mercy on us” just after same-sex marriage was legalised in all States in USA.  As a result, she was suspended and eventually expelled from the SRC.  She further suffered harassment, threats of violence, her office was trashed, there were demands to have her scholarship withdrawn and she was publicly labelled as a “homophobe” and a “bigot”.  Pae was subsequently reinstated following intervention from Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA), but none of these incidents or comments against her were investigated by the SAHRC.  By contrast, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) is currently investigating a well-known Christian activist / lobby group for comments they made during the same Facebook debate when they defended Pae’s views and position. 

Again, the double standard is shown in the case of Pastor André Bekker, a former homosexual who now leads a Christian organisation that ministers to people with unwanted same-sex attraction, and to families and loved ones of people with same-sex attraction. In this case, Bekker lodged a complaint with the SAHRC against a number of LGBT activists, complaining that their denial that a person is capable of changing their sexual orientation and effectively calling persons who have changed (including Bekker himself) “liars”, amount to unfair discrimination and “hate speech” against former homosexuals. The SAHRC rejected Bekker’s complaint and his appeal, on the basis that the comments (by the LGBT activists), were “merely expressed opinions in the ordinary course of debate, which comments fell within the ambit of the right to freedom of expression and therefore did not amount to hate speech”. However, when journalist Jon Qwelane expressed his opinion that “gay is not okay” in the ordinary course of debate, the same SAHRC took him to the Equality Court for “hate speech” in terms of PEPUDA!

These are all illustrations of the type of incidents Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) highlighted when it expressed concerns regarding the over-broad definition of “hate speech” in the draft Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, in respect of which over 70 000 submissions were made to the Department of Justice earlier this year.  We warned that as soon as the definition of hate speech is extended beyond “advocacy of hatred … that constitutes incitement to harm” (section 16(2)(c) of the Constitution) to also include speech that is “hurtful” or “insulting”, then the interpretation becomes entirely subjective and this in turn has the potential to drastically curtail true freedom of speech.  

The problem with the “hate speech” provision as it currently appears in the draft Bill, is that it is highly likely to be used in a biased way by activists who wish to silence or suppress any voices that oppose their particular agendas or viewpoints.  FOR SA remains in close contact with the Deputy Minister of Justice to monitor changes to the proposed “hate speech” provisions in this Bill to ensure that the teaching and preaching of Christian truths remain protected.  This is increasingly important as it is clear that a double standard is being applied which protects any speech or commentary that is deemed to be “politically correct”, while supporting a “judge, jury and executioner” approach to any speech that contradicts these ideological positions. 

Michael was raised in England, graduating from the University of Bristol with an honours degree in Law before immigrating to South Africa in 1983. He has been a successful businessman as well as having spent over 30 years in ministry in South Africa, Europe and the USA. He serves as the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA).

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