Thank goodness we have Scottish courts defending free speech - Murdo Fraser

It was Voltaire’s biographer, rather than the man himself, who came up with the phrase: “I hate what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But this Edwardian confection of the sentiment of an 18th century French philosopher is a glorious one, even if some would have you believe it has no place in 21st century Scotland.

Rev. Franklin Graham
Rev. Franklin Graham

Certainly, the co-leader of the Scottish Greens (and now, remarkably, a Minister in the Scottish Government), Patrick Harvie, has his own personal limits on what can be said and who can say it. In a paraphrase of George Orwell in his world, ‘free buses good, free speech bad.’

His confection of the sentiment seems to stop with, “I hate what you say,” with the possible addition of, “and will kill your right to say it.” If Mr Harvie does not like the cut of your jib he feels he has the right to silence you, but thankfully we still have judges with a regard for the rule of law.

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Anyone with an interest in defending free speech will have welcomed the judgement of Sheriff John McCormick last week, in the case of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association against the Scottish Event Campus Ltd.

Franklin Graham, son of the famous preacher, the late Billy Graham, had booked the SSE Hydro arena for a large event in May 2020. This was intended to be an evangelistic rally - free, non-ticketed, and open to members of the public. It was designed to attract an audience of thousands, which has been the pattern for such events elsewhere in the UK and throughout the world. The hire cost of the venue was £50,000.

The event was cancelled by the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) following protests from a number of individuals, including two Church of Scotland ministers and Patrick Harvie. The concerns related to allegations that Mr Graham had expressed views in the past which were hateful, Islamophobic, and homophobic.

The Scottish Event Campus Ltd is a company in which the principal shareholder is Glasgow City Council, who were instrumental in ensuring that the event was cancelled.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sued the SEC for financial losses arising from the cancellation, claiming that the cancellation of the event contravened the Equality Act, which effectively protect religious or philosophical beliefs, and free speech.

Sheriff McCormick ruled in favour of the pursuers, awarding them damages in excess of £97,000 with the question of costs to be determined at a later date. These sums will require to be paid by the SEC, but ultimately the burden may fall upon the council taxpayers of Glasgow.

One does not have to be sympathetic to Mr Graham’s opinions on any matter, or to be an enthusiast for his style of mass evangelism, to see that the cancellation of the event by the SEC was an afront to free speech.

In a free and liberal democracy there should always be a presumption that people are free to express their opinions even when they may cause offence to others. The actions of the SEC in cancelling the Franklin Graham event quite clearly were in breach of the law, and the judgement of Sheriff McCormick is striking in how comprehensively he found in favour of the preacher.

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The Sheriff observes in his judgement: “whether others agree with, disagree with or even, as was submitted on behalf of the pursuer, find abhorrent, the opinions of the pursuers or Franklin Graham is not relevant for the purposes of this decision…the Court does not adjudicate on the validity of religious or philosophical beliefs”. These beliefs are protected in law, regardless of what view others would have of them.

Sheriff McCormick found no evidence that there was potential for Mr Graham to make homophobic or Islamophobic comments, as objectors had claimed, and the SEC conceded during the case that the event was not going to be a platform for such views. It was purely an opportunity for Christian evangelism. The SEC further accepted that Mr Graham did not intend to engage in hate speech.

The Sheriff was damning in his criticism of the contribution of Mr Harvie, who had reportedly stated that: “the idea of allowing the SECC to be used as a platform for such a toxic and dangerous agenda seems so utterly at odds with the values of a civilised society that I was extremely surprised to learn that this booking had been accepted”.

It was no part of the defenders’ case, and no evidence was led, to suggest that Franklin Graham had actually intended to pursue a ‘toxic or dangerous’ agenda at the event.

Referring to both Mr Harvie and two ministers of the Church of Scotland, the Sheriff states that: “the (on occasion, polemical) terms of what they were reported to have written and their mischaracterisation of the event was neither supported by the facts nor by either party to the case”.

He then wryly observes that a theme amongst those seeking cancellation of the event included prefacing their remarks with a professed belief in free speech, while denying that right to others and denying third parties their choice to attend. As a judicial slap down, they don’t come much firmer than that.

I doubt that either Mr Harvie or the Kirk ministers involved will have the good grace to apologise for their conduct. They will not seek a platform themselves to correct the record. Perhaps they need to reflect upon the fact that the right of free speech is there to protect all of us. If Franklin Graham is silenced today, perhaps it will be the Kirk tomorrow and Patrick Harvie the next day.

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Believing in free speech means being prepared to defend the rights of those with whom we might disagree. I will defend even Patrick Harvie’s right to say things - even though we have heard them all and dismissed them long ago.

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