Freedom of speech has its limits. This is becoming increasingly apparent in the United Kingdom, where many religious people claim their rights to speak out on various faith issues are being trampled. If found offensive, certain words targeted at homosexuals, for example, could prove legally damaging to those who utter them.
Take, for instance, 47-year-old Michael Overd. While the court case against the Christian street preacher ended favorably for him, controversial words Overd uttered initially landed him in hot water.
On Saturday, he was cleared of two counts of using threatening words or behaviors against two gay men in Somerset, England. Overd was accused of telling Craig Manning, 36, and his civil partner Craig Nichol, 24, that they would "burn in hell" as they walked past him in July 2011. The Daily Mail has more:
Mr Nichol, giving evidence at the two-day trial, said as soon as Overd saw them from around 10 metres away on July 16 last year 'the expression on his face changed'.
He said: 'He said ‘I have already told these two sinners over here that they are going to burn in hell’.
'He looked at us and pointed at us when he said it. His voice was quite loud and very clear. I felt angry, embarrassed and ashamed.
'I asked him who he was to judge me and he said ‘it’s God’s words, it is in the bible’.
'He said I should repent and ask God for forgiveness.'
According to Overd's defense lawyers, the defendant was merely reciting scripture, as Overd went on to tell the court that he was pointing to the fact that the men were "sinners." He claimed, contrary to their allegations, that he did not speak out and target them because of their homosexuality.
"Even these two dear men whom I have met before, caught in the sin of homosexuality, can have the forgiveness of the sin should they so repent," Overd explained. "I was not trying to draw to the public the fact that they were homosexuals, I was drawing the public to the fact that they were sinners."
Overd maintained that he was not targeting the men's sexual orientation.
"If I heard someone preaching the things I am accused of preaching I would talk to them about it," he continued.
But the couple claims that Overd deliberately targeted them following a previous encounter they had with him in 2010. After seeing the two men holding hands in the previous incident, Overd apparently responded and was subsequently spoken to by police. The couple cited this incident as proof that the July 2011 encounter was purposefully provoked by the preacher.
The case ended up devolving into a he-said, he-said mashup. The Huffington Post has more:
The lay preacher claimed the couple threatened violence against him when they saw him on July 16 last year. Overd, of Creech St Michael in Somerset, was cleared at Taunton Magistrates' Court today of two charges of using threatening words or behaviour against the couple.
Speaking after the end of the trial, Mr Overd said "something is wrong" when "Abu Qatada can preach about Jihad and death to the Jews but the police arrest me, a Christian preacher who cares deeply for Jesus Christ and the people of Taunton".
Speaking with reporters following the trial's conclusion, Overd said that "Christians are being harassed" and that the case should have never been brought against him.
Manning and Nichol, though, maintain that they were discriminated against. The couple is considering appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, as they feel they have been wronged by the legal system.
"We tried to stand up for our human and gay rights and we have been let down," Manning said. "We do not have a problem with the words of the Bible being preached, it was the manner in which he was preaching, trying to make an example of us in the middle of the high street."
Interestingly, famed scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins came out in support of Overd. While he wrote a blog post that openly chastised the street preacher's beliefs, he held them up as a product of free speech. Dawkins wrote:
Why the hell shouldn't a street preacher express his opinion that two adults are going to hell? Why didn't they just do what the rest of us do when harangued by a street preacher – simply laugh at him and walk on by? Why the rush to law? Why waste the time of a court?
The irony is that some religious adults fill children's innocent minds with terrifying stories of hell with society's full approval. It seems that we have become more sensitive to the feelings of adults than we have to those of children, which is bizarre, to say the least. Unlike vulnerable children, this adult couple could scarcely plead that their fear of hell (if any) was materially increased by the words of an obviously ridiculous street preacher.
Prosecution would of course be appropriate if he had physically attacked the men, or seriously threatened them with violence, or incited others to attack them violently. But, as far as one can tell from the inadequate news reports, he did no such thing. Indeed, the only people accused of threatening violence (not very plausibly) are the gay men themselves.
Sometimes, the most unlikely of allies come together in the defense of free speech.