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Opinion

The curious case of Franklin, free speech and the venue police

Opinion

We live in a society of incredible freedom, but not so much, it seems, when it comes to Franklin Graham and free speech. Public conversations have been curtailed as campaign groups, protest organisers, councils and venue operators cancel events featuring views they profoundly disagree with or simply don't like. If we disagree with someone, we no longer discuss or debate with them, instead we 'no platform' them. 

When footballer Mesut Özil tweeted his support for the Uighur people, who are oppressed for their faith in China, the Chinese authorities refused to broadcast Arsenal's matches. Here, private landlords and local councils are being pressured to cancel events with 'unsavoury' speakers, ironically in the name of inclusion, diversity and tolerance. 

Franklin Graham is set to tour the UK in the coming months as part of the evangelistic Graham tour. But over the last few days we have seen venues fall like dominoes as councils scramble to toe the progressive line and no-platform the American preacher. 

Franklin Graham was booked to speak at the Hydro Centre in Glasgow as part of the tour. The venue is part owned by the city council. Susan Aitken, the leader of the local authority said allowing Graham to go ahead could break the law. I am curious what law she has in mind. As a former barrister, it beats me. Instead, it feels like a 'Minority Report' moment, where Graham is being penalised for what someone thinks he might say. In fact, it may be that the council have to explain how their decision is not a breach of the Equalities Act. This would appear to be discrimination based on religious beliefs.

It would be naive not to admit that Franklin Graham is a marmite figure. Some see him as a bold prophetic voice, others see his political views as divisive and unhelpful. But that is not the point. Freedom of speech is only worth something when it affirms the freedom of all people, including the ones we disagree with. 

The famous line, probably misattributed to Voltaire, is nonetheless surely true - "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it." It has often been cited in support of free speech because whether we agree with the content or not, free speech is central to liberal democracy.
 
Israel Folau was fired for comments about homosexuality by Rugby Australia despite Qantas, their sponsor, being in partnership with Emirates, the state-owned airline of UAE where homosexuality is punishable by death. Billy Vunipola was dropped by Channel 4 for supporting Folau because it is an "inclusive broadcaster". Tim Farron found that to live as a committed Christian and lead a political party was impossible, even a supposedly liberal party.

I have publicly defended the right of Folau, Vunipola and Tim Farron and I have also defended the right of a burrito chain to make a joke at the expense of my beliefs. Free speech is easy to defend when we agree with the speaker. Free speech is only worthwhile, when it protects those we disagree with.

Fast-food chain Chick-fil-A had to close their first UK location following protests from LGBTQ groups and the landlord's refusal to extend their initial six-month lease. Today, The Times has reported that Edinburgh city council have cancelled a booking by large Scottish evangelical church, Destiny for their annual conference. The paper has labeled Destiny a sect and has an implicit go at Gavin Calver - my boss and one of the speakers. 

We need to create space to have honest conversations about Franklin Graham's views being seen as controversial. We also need to find space for honest conversations about where a culture of banning ends. Any of us might be next. 

In the Evangelical Alliance we have members actively supporting the Graham tour and others who have concerns. There are good conversations to be had about what effective evangelism looks like and the role of the local church in that. But in this moment, venues, often owned by local people and run by their councils, are challenging freedom of speech and freedom of religion. We should all share concerns about that. 

Peter Lynas is UK director of the Evangelical Alliance

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