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Freedom of speech and the Welsh Assembly

Compromise in the Senedd?

Freedom of speech is not an issue that crops up on a regular basis in the National Assembly for Wales but, when it does, it tends to make the headlines. 

It was almost 10 years ago, for example, that then-Liberal Democrat AM Peter Black co-sponsored an event in the Assembly in which author Patrick Jones read from a collection of his poems. Many Christians deemed some of the poems to be blasphemous and this led to a peaceful demonstration involving 250 Christians outside the Senedd, held at the same time as the event, with the whole episode attracting much media coverage. 

Just before Christmas, Gareth Bennett, UKIP AM for South Wales Central, gave a speech in plenary in which he spoke out against society endlessly acceding to the demands of minorities”, giving examples of transgender people to illustrate his point. His language and phraseology provoked a strong reaction from many AMs and the following day presiding officer Elin Jones, in what must have been one of the most testing times in her role, announced that Bennett would be no-platformed” in the Senedd. That meant that he would not be called upon to speak for the duration of 2018 until he had apologised and withdrawn his remarks. She cited the use of deviation from the norm” as being particularly hateful to transgender people. 

Peter Black leaped to the UKIP AM’s defence in his blog: while clarifying his disdain for UKIP policies and behaviour and stating his track record of speaking up for transgender rights, Black stressed that freedom of speech includes the right to offend. Once people are allowed to apply their own subjective values to others,” he said then we are on a slippery slope to censorship and dictatorship”. 

In this he is echoing a leading judge describing the extent of the freedom provided by Article 10 of the ECHR

Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

In January, Gareth Bennett said that he was sorry that people took offence” but that he stood by his views to proposed changes in the Gender Recognition Bill. Elin Jones responded by saying: 

I accept your apology, Gareth Bennett, and you may be assured that I’ll always uphold the right of any Member in this Chamber to air views that are unpalatable to other Members and to others as well. But, all Members need to do so using language that is both parliamentary and non-discriminatory at all times.” 

It would appear from this that freedom of speech, as we understand it, has been somewhat compromised in the Assembly. Great responsibility has also been assumed by the presiding officer to make decisions on what is and what is not discriminatory.

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