Are we eroding the right to freedom of speech (and thought)?

A little while ago, the Australian rugby union fullback Israel Folau posted a message on Instagram stating that drunkards, thieves, homosexuals and atheists were destined for Hell. As a result, Folau has been ejected from the Australian team for making a discriminatory pronouncement. It is unlikely that the rugby officials objected to his discrimination against drunkards or thieves, or perhaps even against atheists, but they felt compelled to take drastic action because of his condemnation of homosexuals.

Among the estimated 30,000 people who approved of Folau’s post was the English international Billy Vunipola. His positive response to Folau led to a formal warning from the Rugby Football Union “under rule 5.12 for conduct prejudicial to the interests of the union or the game”. This warning will remain on Vunipola’s record for five years. He was obliged to express “genuine regret” for his public comments and reminded that his responsibilities as an England player require him “to value inclusivity and respect”. In other words he’s been reprimanded much as Folau has, though less drastically.

His defence was also similar to Folau’s: “My intention was to express my belief in the Word of God. These beliefs are a source of great strength, comfort and guidance in my life. This is deeply personal and does not represent the view of my team… My intention was never to… hurt people.” This explanation didn’t stop the crowd from booing him when he played for Saracens against Bristol last weekend.

How times change! Half a century ago, male homosexuality in England had only recently been decriminalised and it still attracted contempt, condemnation and jokes. Progress in social attitudes since then has made it unacceptable to voice such attitudes and illegal to express them in ways deemed “homophobic”. The actions of the rugby football authorities in Australia and England have been consistent with this aspect of “political correctness”. However, is there not a deeper inconsistency? Can we reconcile this punitive reaction against what is construed as homophobia with the failure to extend the “value of inclusiveness and respect” to people’s deeply held religious views? Does the right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech stop short of the right to hold and disseminate a religious conviction?

Seen in that light, it might be held to Vunipola’s credit that his response to the RFU stopped short of apology, and he hasn’t deleted his “offensive” Instagram post. Personally, I disagree strongly with Folau and Vunipola. I detest the condemnation of other humans because of their sexual orientation. But, as Voltaire (more or less) said, I’d champion their right to express those views. After all, they’re saying no more than has been traditionally been said by followers of the world’s three great monotheisms.

In that context, it’s interesting to compare the approval with which the sanctions on Folau and Vunipola have been greeted with the furore that erupted in Birmingham recently concerning the inclusion of LGBT relationships in school sex education. This is national education policy, but some Muslim parents objected vociferously because homosexuality is generally considered incompatible with Islam. The response to the objections has been to sideline this aspect of sex education.

I’m a little confused by this. If the sanctions on Folau and Vunipola are generally approved by our society, why have the objections by Muslim parents been allowed to exert such influence on an aspect of education that is also generally (including politically) approved? I champion the rights of the Muslim parents to their views just as I champion those of the two condemned rugby players, while disagreeing no less strongly with those views. But either we live in a society that accepts homosexual relationships or we don’t; and either we live in a society that respects the rights of people to hold, and express, particular moral and religious views or we don’t. Those moral and religious views are private and family matters; the acceptance of homosexual relationships is a social matter. We need to learn to reconcile the two.




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