Free speech has been upheld in the UK this week. Back in 2014, when a Belfast bakery declined to make a cake with the inscription “Support Gay Marriage,” the owners of the bakery, Daniel and Amy McArthur, were sued by the customer, and the court ruled they had illegally discriminated against him because of his sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and political opinions.
I found the case noteworthy at the time because an LGBT activist, Peter Tatchell, argued in favor of protecting the rights of the bakers, saying, “If the Ashers [Bakery] verdict stands...it would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes or print posters with bigoted messages.” He recognized the need for allowing people to operate their businesses according to their consciences, knowing that forcing people to promote ideas they disagree with could come back to haunt the very LGBT people whose rights he fights for. He recognized that if free speech rights don’t protect everyone, they protect no one.
Now the UK’s Supreme Court has unanimously agreed, ruling in favor of the bakery, and noting, as did Tatchell, that this was not a case of discrimination against someone because of his sexual orientation, or beliefs, or anything else:
Announcing the ruling, Supreme Court president, Lady Hale, said: “It is deeply humiliating, and an affront to human dignity, to deny someone a service because of that person’s race, gender, disability, sexual orientation or any of the other protected personal characteristics.”
“But that is not what happened in this case and it does the project of equal treatment no favours to seek to extend it beyond its proper scope,” she continued.
She said that freedom of expression includes the right “not to express an opinion which one does not hold”.
“This court has held that ’nobody should be forced to have or express a political opinion in which he does not believe’”, she said.
In the court’s press summary, a clear distinction is made between discriminating against an individual and declining to promote that individual’s message:
The McArthurs could not refuse to provide their products to Mr Lee because he was a gay man or because he supported gay marriage, but that was different from obliging them to supply a cake iced with a message with which they profoundly disagreed.
This is exactly the distinction that needs to be made (see “Refusing to Serve Individuals vs. Refusing to Participate in Events”), and Tatchell is once again arguing that making this distinction protects everyone:
“This verdict is a victory for freedom of expression. As well as meaning that Ashers cannot be legally forced to aid the promotion of same-sex marriage, it also means that gay bakers cannot be compelled by law to decorate cakes with anti-gay marriage slogans,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell...
“Although I profoundly disagree with Ashers opposition to marriage equality, in a free society neither they nor anyone else should be forced to facilitate a political idea that they oppose.
“The ruling does not permit anyone to discriminate against LGBT people. Such discrimination rightly remains unlawful.
“Ashers did not discriminate against the customer, Gareth Lee, because he was gay. They objected to the message he wanted on the cake: ’Support gay marriage.’”
Seeing the UK Supreme Court’s unanimous decision and Tatchell’s principled stand for free speech rights above his own agenda both give me hope. Perhaps a time will come again in this nation when free speech is something we can all agree on - a starting point of solidarity, a way back to civility.