Peter Tatchell defends NI street preachers under investigation by PSNI for ‘hate incidents’

LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has defended Banbridge street preachers under investigation by the PSNI for reported ‘hate incidents’.

The PSNI is investigating four complaints made against street preachers in the town, which it has recorded as “hate incidents”.

Although police did not detail the nature of the complaints, social media posts allege they relate to comments on homosexuality and disabled children and their parents.

The PSNI told the News Letter that in principle, even though comments might be considered offensive it did not necessarily follow that they constituted a criminal offence.

An open air preacher in Northern Ireland. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An open air preacher in Northern Ireland. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An open air preacher in Northern Ireland. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Chief Inspector Barney O’Connor said: “We have received four reports in relation to street preachers in the Banbridge area, which are being investigated. These have been recorded as hate incidents.

“There is currently no specific hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland. If a person is found guilty of a crime which in the opinion of the court was motivated by hate, the sentence may be enhanced.

“Whilst something is said by one person is perceived as offensive by another, it may not necessarily be a criminal offence.

“There is no requirement for notification to police of these specific events, although we would always encourage engagement with local police prior to and during any public events to ensure the safety of all.”

The issue has prompted hundreds of comments on social media, the vast majority objecting to the preaching - some complaining especially that the volume was excessive.

Some said they had heard specific things preached that they found deeply offensive.

However several posters warned of the potential implications for freedom of speech if the authorities attain the legal power to silence the preachers.

Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council also said it had “no remit over the regulation and permitting of street preaching”.

However it confirmed that its Environmental Health Department has received a number of complaints “regarding the noise pollution aspect of this activity and will be investigating this matter further”.

But LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said such preachers should not be criminalised for their opinions - only if they have commited other offences.

“The views expressed by these street preachers may be obnoxious but they should not be criminalised unless they involve false damaging allegations against named individuals, or include threats, menaces, harassment or incitements violence,” he told the News Letter.

“The PSNI are correct to say that the mere causing of offence is not a crime and there is no legal right to be spared offence. I presume that I would vehemently disagree with what the preachers were saying but believe the best response is not ‘lock them up’ but to hold protests and make counter arguments to show why they are wrong. As a courtesy to others, preachers should avoid or be asked to turn down very prolonged, extreme and excessive noise.”

• John Sherwood, 71, was recently arrested in London for ‘homophobic’ preaching but released without charge.

:: Have you heard the street preaching in Banbridge? [email protected].uk


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