Belfast Telegraph

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

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.

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