This is a guest post by Peter Tatchell
“The conviction of these five men is an infringement of free speech and the right to protest,” said human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell.
He was commenting on the guilty verdicts today against five Muslim men who protested at a home-coming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton in March 2009.
They were convicted under the Public Order Act of using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
“I abhor everything they stand for, but defend their right to freedom of expression. Even though what they said was offensive to many people, their right to speak their mind is one of the hallmarks of a democratic society,” added Mr Tatchell.
“They want to destroy our democracy and freedoms. I want to defend these values. If we silence and criminalise their views, we are little better than them.
“I strongly disagree with these men and their fanatical, fundamentalist religion. They seek to establish an Islamist dictatorship in the UK. I reject the hatred and religious tyranny they espouse.
“But I defend their right to express their opinions, even though they are offensive and distressing to many people.
“Judge Carolyn Mellanby was wrong to rule that the people of Luton have a right to be protected against words they find insulting. Some of the greatest minds in history have caused insult and offence, including Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin.
“Insult and offence are not sufficient grounds in a democratic society to criminalise words and actions.
“The criminalisation of insulting, abusive or offensive speech is wrong. The only words that should be criminalised are untrue
defamations and threats of violence, such as falsely branding someone as a paedophile or inciting murder.
“Some sections of the Public Order Act inhibit the right to free speech and the right to protest. They should be repealed.
“Just as I defended the right to free speech of the Christian homophobe Harry Hammond, and opposed his conviction in 2002 for insulting the gay community, so I also defend the right of these objectionable Muslim extremists to make their views heard.
“The best way to respond to these fanatics is expose and refute their hateful, bigoted opinions.