Focus on the Family, which opposes unfettered free speech for gay-tolerant viewpoints, digs up a 2001 incident in Britain, in which an antigay street preacher was assaulted and arrested. Focus views the arrest and conviction of the preacher as proof (somehow) that gay tolerance is a threat to free speech.

Focus’ angry recollection of this dated incident is sketchy — intentionally, perhaps, because in this story it turns out that a gay activist prominently defended the incendiary preacher’s free-speech rights.

According to a web site that defends the separation of church and state, Harry Hammond was a 69-year-old antigay fundamentalist street preacher (now deceased) who intentionally violated a British law against brandishing insulting signs and inciting violence in public places.

The preacher concealed his sign while sneaking it into a public square in a neighborhood where gay people reside. A crowd of neighborhood residents and pedestrians slowly gathered as Hammond issued verbal tirades and brandished a sign saying “Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism!” In time, the crowd became furious. Some uncouth individuals in the crowd tossed dirt and water, and someone shoved Hammond, knocking him over.

When police arrived, they asked Hammond to stop insulting and inciting the neighborhood, to take his sign and leave the square. Hammond refused police orders. He was arrested, eventually convicted of violating Britain’s Public Order Act of 1986, and fined 300 pounds plus 350 pounds for court costs. Appellate courts upheld the conviction.

Subsequently, several antigay web sites ranted that a “gang of homosexual thugs” had attacked an innocent preacher and denied him his free-speech rights.

Focus and the other antigay sites neglect to mention that ill-mannered protesters’ “rights” are not constitutionally absolute in Britain and Canada, but rather subservient to the need for civility, good manners, and public order — virtues perhaps not well-understood by the religious right.

Nevertheless, at least one gay activist, Peter Tatchell, came to Hammond’s defense, agreeing to testify on Hammond’s behalf, according to numerous published sources.

Again, Focus and the antigay sites neglect to mention this key fact. And Focus further overlooks its opposition to free speech for gay-tolerant activists in schools, the media, government publications, and the private workplace.

Sue Carroll of The Mirror in London describes Tatchell’s involvement:

For a man given no support when he was beaten up by Mugabe’s henchmen, arrested for his anti-Islamic stance and vilified for his gay rights campaigning he owes this country nothing.

Yet, he has offered his voice to support a man – whose views he detests – in the name of free speech.

It appears that Tatchell — not Hammond, and not James Dobson — is the real hero of this particular story.

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