BIG INTERVIEW Peter Tatchell: ‘Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights’

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is questioned and led away by Russian authorities in Moscow after staging a one-man protest near Red Square. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is questioned and led away by Russian authorities in Moscow after staging a one-man protest near Red Square. Picture by Aaron Chown/PA Wire

As the World Cup kicks off in Russia, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has been arrested and released in Moscow following a one-man protest near the Kremlin.

Tatchell was detained near the statue of Marshal Zhukov in a public square which was busy with football fans ahead of the first game of the World Cup, while holding a poster attacking Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Peter Tatchell. Picture by Fern Leigh Albert.

Peter Tatchell. Picture by Fern Leigh Albert.

The poster read: ‘Putin fails to act against Chechnya torture of gay people.’

Several police officers moved in to detain Mr Tatchell and told him he had broken the law in Russia.

He was allowed to walk to a nearby police car where he was questioned before being transferred to another car and being driven away to a police station.

The activist shouted ‘OK’ as he left the first vehicle before being flanked by two officers in the car which drove him away.

Peter Tatchell speaks at The Huffington Post UK Soapbox event at Westfield Stratford.

Peter Tatchell speaks at The Huffington Post UK Soapbox event at Westfield Stratford.

He was released on bail around an hour later, and the Peter Tatchell Foundation said he had been ‘treated well’.

Tatchell is due to speak at Portsmouth Festivities on June 20, giving a talk called You Can’t Say That! It is currently unknown if the talk will go ahead as planned.

He recently spoke to The Guide about his upcoming appearance in the city.

The right to free speech has often been a burning question in political and social discourse.

And with the rise of social media, more people than ever before have been able to have their say on the issues that matter to them – and to have their voices heard.

Alongside that there has become a trend of demanding safe spaces and no-platforming, whereby people holding certain views that are found objectionable are banned from airing them.

Peter Tatchell has been a human rights campaigner since his teens when he was growing up in Australia. Shortly after he moved to London he was among the organisers of the first Gay Pride event in 1972.

Since then he has campaigned on numerous issues, from the war in Iraq, to religious rights, racism and the environment and many more. in 2011 he founded The Peter Tatchell Foundation, a non-political organisation, campaigning for human rights.

This year’s Portsmouth Festivities, which begin today, take the theme of freedom. The annual 10-day event will see more than 100 events take place celebrating arts and culture, along with thought-provoking talks, including Peter, who will be giving a talk called You Can’t Say That!

He will be airing his views on free speech and causing offence. Are safe space and no-platform policies sensible safeguards or autocratic censorship?

Is it ever legitimate to restrict free speech or is free speech inviolable and sacrosanct? Should people be allowed to mock Islam, oppose trans rights or dispute the Holocaust? 

The Guide caught up with Peter ahead of his visit to explain why this is such an important matter: ‘The issue of free speech has always been a burning topical question, but in recent years, there has been an increasing tendency to say that if something is said and some people find it offensive, it should be restricted or banned.

‘Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights, it should only be limited in very narrow circumstances, such as if a person makes false, damaging allegations, engages in threats or harassment, or incites violence – those are my three red lines.’

However, the water becomes muddy when hate speech is brought up.

‘Hate speech is very difficult to define. Where do you draw the line between legitimate, robust criticism, and the provocation of hatred? It’s a very subjective judgement.

‘The most effective way to respond to offensive ideas is to protest and challenge them, simply banning an idea doesn’t make it go away but if it can be challenged and opened to debate then it can be exposed and refuted. That’s much more effective than no-platforms and safe-space.

‘I grew up in Australia and I lived through the Australian version of McCarthyism where any liberal ideals were deemed to be communist or aiding the communists. I nearly lost my job because I spoke out against Australia and America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, so I know first hand how important the right to free speech is.’

What about those who actively seem to seek out material that will cause them offence?

‘Almost anything that anyone says could potentially cause offence to someone. There is no human right to not be offended,’ counters Peter, ‘free speech trumps causing offence, except in those three examples that I gave earlier.’

But does giving people who peddle objectionable views a platform simply give them the oxygen of publicity? Peter brings up the occasion when the then-leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin went on the BBC’s flagship political show, Question Time in 2009. At the time, the far-right party had gained two seats at the recent European elections and the organisation appeared to be moving towards the mainstream.

‘When Nick Griffin went on Question Time, many people feared it would give him authority and credibility, but in fact through vigorous refutation from the other panellists he emerged weakened and discredited.’

‘Social justice warrior’ has in recent years become a term commonly used by the right for someone deemed to be overly concerned with human rights, a ‘do-gooder’.

But Peter disagrees with this definition: ‘To champion social justice is not a shame, it’s a credit to the person who is taking the time to challenge injustice.’

He’s also an advocate of satire.

‘It has a legitimate role in comedy and politics – it shouldn’t be treated the same as normal political discourse, it’s perfectly valid to satirise, criticise or ridicule a person or idea, including me and my ideals. I’ve been on the receiving end of offensive comments but I’ve felt the best way to respond is not by crying victim but by challenging and rebutting those criticisms.’

And looking forward Peter has a positive outlook, but warns we need to stay on our guard.

‘The overall trajectory of human rights is towards improved understanding and acceptance, but there is a censorious undercurrent that is seeking to rewrite ideas about free speech. I stand with [19th century British philosopher] John Stuart Mill’s classic definition of free speech and liberty, but some people, now just dismiss him as an old white, western man.’

You Can’t Say That! by Peter Tatchell is at the David Russell Theatre, Portsmouth Grammar School, High Street, Old Portsmouth, from 7pm on Wednesday, June 20. Adults £8, concessions £5. Go to portsmouthfestivities.co.uk