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Franklin Graham: Shutting down free speech is unacceptable in a democracy

Franklin Graham's UK evangelism tour is in jeopardy after four venues recently cancelled his bookings. (Update 05/02/20: All eight venues have cancelled Graham's booking) Laurence Wilkinson says the silencing of speech we disagree with is not a sign of a healthy democracy

There has been a major push to derail Franklin Graham’s 2020 tour of the United Kingdom with four venues due to host him announcing in quick succession that they were cancelling his bookings.

Graham, a well-known evangelist from the United States and son of the late Billy Graham, announced last year that he would be visiting eight cities across the UK to share the gospel message following a successful event in Blackpool in 2018.

There had been some controversy in the leadup to the 2018 event when adverts were taken off local busses on the basis that they were “offensive” (even though the adverts simply said “Time for Hope!”).

Graham has been outspoken in his views on homosexuality, Islam and Donald Trump, which led some MPs to call for him to be barred from entering the UK on the basis that he was a “hate preacher”. Ultimately, the three-day event in Blackpool went ahead without issue, with thousands of people from across the region attending.

In the runup to the 2020 tour, protesters have written to venues urging them to cancel Franklin Graham’s bookings. With pressure mounting, four out of the eight venues due to host the evangelism tour have cancelled Graham’s booking.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with Franklin Graham’s views, there are three very troubling aspects to these developments. The first is that these cancellations have been justified, for the most part, in the name of tolerance and equality. Some venues have even suggested that hosting him might breach their legal obligations.

In reality, the cancellations have been prompted by groups that are offended by Graham’s previous comments, which are simply not the focus of his upcoming tour. There has been no mention of the fact that his 2018 event in Blackpool went ahead without issue. The strong wording of the statements indicate that they are very conscious decisions by the venues to appease the protestors. Tolerance must be a two-way street and having public officials applauding – or ensuring – the silencing of speech with which they disagree is not a sign of healthy democracy.

Secondly, there is a very real possibility that these venues are acting unlawfully, in that they are cancelling the bookings on the basis of Franklin Graham’s beliefs. Whether or not you agree with Graham, the law is clear that you cannot deny service to someone on the basis of their beliefs. Venues are free to clarify that they do not endorse the views or beliefs of those hosting events, but they cannot legally say that someone’s religious beliefs disqualify them from using the venue.

Finally, it is very worrying to see the domino effect that has played out since the ACC’s initial public announcement. These venues will have known about the opposition to the bookings for months, but as soon as one of them said that they would be cancelling the booking, the others quickly caved, regardless of the fact that they might be acting unlawfully. It shows just how strong the pressure to conform can be in the wake of strong statements and intense media attention.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Franklin Graham’s 2020 tour. While replacement venues might emerge, there has been a suggestion that legal action might be taken against the venues, which could prove particularly embarrassing for the Sheffield Arena after it had initially recognised the free speech issues at stake.

One can only imagine the outcry if the Sheffield Arena had cancelled Green Day’s appearance in 2017 after they led an “anti-Trump” chant at the American Music Awards on the basis that their views were “repulsive”. There can be no double standard when it comes to freedom of expression. Whether or not you agree with Green Day or Graham, we start moving in a bad direction when we look to silence people who have expressed things with which we disagree. 

Laurence Wilkinson is Legal Counsel for ADF International.

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