Attacks on the freedom of expression have been plentiful over the last two decades. Slowly but surely a greater and wider variety of words and expressions have been deemed off limits. This is nothing to be pleased about for the right to say things that others don’t like is a longstanding, hard won right in this country. I have spoken at length about this here, here and here among many other posts which you can search on this blog easily enough.
Today, however, events have taken a sinister turn indeed. For no longer is free speech simply inhibited (as if that is not bad enough), we are moving into the era of the coerced orthodox utterance. We are not merely being told what we cannot say, we are now being told what we must say on pain of prosecution. It is no longer enough to only avoid saying the wrong thing, we are now being forced to say the right thing irrespective of whether we believe it or not. Orwell’s 1984 is well and truly here.
Today, the Court of Appeal in Belfast upheld the previous ruling against Ashers Bakery in what has been termed the ‘gay cake’ case. You can read more details here and here. You can also read reports in the mainstream media in today’s Guardian, BBC, Telegraph and Independent.
The case has centred on whether it was acceptable for Asher’s Bakery to deny their service to Gareth Lee who requested a cake with the message ‘support gay marriage’. Mr Lee claimed that the service was denied because he was a homosexual. Ashers argued that Mr Lee’s sexuality bore no relevance to their decision. They maintain that it was the message on the cake itself, which would have contravened their own deeply held beliefs, that led them to reject the order. They similarly argued that to bake the cake with this message would be to endorse the message which is at odds with their conscience. At heart, the case is about whether a service provider should be forced to endorse a statement utterly at odds with their own beliefs or whether it was acceptable to turn down such business. Today’s judgement ultimately means the former.
During the course of the case, Ashers received backing from the Northern Ireland Attorney General, John Larking QC, as well as prominent gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Mr Larkin stated:
I say very clearly, if it was a case where Mr Lee had been refused some of Ashers’ excellent chocolate eclairs because he was gay or perceived to be gay I would be standing on the other side of the court.
But it’s not about that, it’s about expression and whether it’s lawful under Northern Ireland constitutional law for Ashers to be forced … to articulate or express or say a political message which is at variance with their political views and in particular their religious views.
Peter Tatchell was similarly clear when he argued:
The court erred by ruling that [gay customer Gareth Lee] was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation and political opinions. His cake request was refused not because he was gay, but because of the message he asked for.
There is no evidence that his sexuality was the reason Ashers declined his order. Despite this, Judge Isobel Brownlie said that refusing the pro-gay marriage slogan was unlawful indirect sexual orientation discrimination.
Responding to the ruling, Daniel MacArthur of Ashers Bakery stated:
If equality law means people can be punished for politely refusing to support other people’s causes then equality law needs to change.
We had served Mr Lee before and we would be happy to serve him again. The judges accepted that we did not know that Mr Lee was gay and that he was not the reason we declined the order. We have always said it was not about the customer, it was about the message.
The judges hearing the case said that it did not follow that simply icing a message on a cake meant you endorse the message thereon.
The significance of the case clearly extends well beyond what one must ice on a cake. As it stands, the ramifications are far reaching and extremely troubling. It would not be remotely surprising to soon find a series of highly provocative requests to a multitude of service providers seeking inflammatory messages that cannot be refused. Can we imagine a Jewish clothing manufacturer being forced to print t-shirts expressing denial of the Holocaust? Is a Muslim baker to be forced to print incendiary pictures of Mohammad? Where exactly are the parameters of what one is forced to endorse?
What is more, the issue has moved on. It is deemed not enough to simply keep silent on any views that are contrary to mainstream orthodoxy. This case shows that we are now moving towards forcing individuals to express utterances with which they deeply disagree. We are no longer just inhibiting people from saying whatever they want (which is quite wrong enough) but now force them to say and endorse precisely what they do not believe, even that with which they manifestly disagree. This is not equality – it is tyranny and suppression.
The ruling has troubling consequences for free expression. I share entirely the view of the Attorney General. There is no excuse for refusing service to somebody simply because of who they are, their sexuality, race, political or religious views. However, to force people to write messages and endorse slogans with which they deeply disagree is to set a troubling precedent that will affect far more than a few provincial bakers. It will have ramifications for us all and will mean there are no utterances which we will not be compelled to supply.
It is very easy to look at any of these individuals and take sides based on the views with which we sympathise. But this is not simply about whose views you share, the issue is about freedom of thought and being coerced to endorse what we simply do not believe. Whether it is Liverpool fans being asked to make t-shirts saying buy The S*n (a move I wouldn’t put past Kelvin MacKenzie) or Muslims being asked to endorse the sale of pork, all of us know of views that would cause us great distress at being forced to speak or endorse against our will. If these, and many other such scenarios, trouble us then this Ashers ruling is surely no less inequitable, unjust and should not stand.