Police were called to investigate reports that Ryan Williamson (44) was committing hate speech in Larne on 10 August last year. However when they arrived and directed him to stop preaching he refused, and they arrested him for disorderly behavior.
The public prosecution service has now informed Mr Williamson he is to be prosecuted for disorderly behaviour.
Businessman Mr Williamson, who preaches all over Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland with friends, persistently claims in his message that same sex relationships are not compatible with the Christian faith. He claims that LGBT activists are increasingly “weaponising” the PSNI to clamp down on preaching a traditional Christian message.
A video clip of the incident in question begins with two police officers arriving and directing him to stop preaching. The officer in question rebuts protests from his friends that Mr Williamson is exercising his human right to free speech, the officer repeating responding several times with the phrase “hate speech”.
At present, no specific offence of hate crime exists in Northern Ireland, although sentences for other offences can be increased if it is proven that an offender was motivated by hostility against a protected characteristic such as race, religion, sexual orientation or disability.
International LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell called on the PPS to “think again” about the prosecution and claimed that “disagreeable opinions” should not be a police matter in a democracy.
“I strongly disagree with the street preacher’s anti-gay views, but I can see no justification for his prosecution,” he told the News Letter.
“From what I have heard, he was not abusing, threatening or harassing anyone. The altercation appears to have been the result of heavy-handed policing, not the preacher’s act of preaching. His preaching does not seem to have been disorderly.
“In a democratic society, disagreeable opinions should be challenged but not subjected to repressive police action. I am sure the PSNI and prosecution service meant well but they appear to have overstepped the law in this case. I urge prosecutors to think again. I cannot see how this prosecution is either fair or in the public interest.”
But Larne based independent Catholic Priest Pat Buckley, who has persistently protested against the preachers, welcomed news of the prosecution.
“I am glad to hear it because I think there is a difference between preaching the gospel and preaching hate,” he told the News Letter. “And even if your religion makes you think hatefully I think the state shouldn’t allow you to express that and hurt other people. We all have our beliefs, but I think we have a duty to express them as kindly as we can.”
Last August North Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said he was concerned that four police cars turned up to deal with Mr Williamson and said he thought police could have waited until he stopped preaching to talk to him.
“But more worrying is the response from the police to the News Letter that it doesn’t have to be a criminal offence [for police involvement] - the police will investigate where they believe offensive language is being used,” he said. “What is the definition of offensive language and since when were the police authorised to decide what somebody said or didn’t say is offensive?”
“If it is criminal then of course they should investigate it. But if it is simply that somebody doesn’t like what somebody has said - well then - we don’t live in China - not yet anyway.”
Asked how the PSNI could have been investigating Mr Williamson for hate speech when there is currently no such offence in NI, the PPS declined to offer any comment.
Asked the same question, PSNI Superintendent Michael Simpson said police had been responding to a complaint of hate speech and anti-social behaviour.
“Officers attended the location and attempted to speak with a number of males, all of whom refused to engage,” Mr Simpson told the News Letter. “After several warnings, one man, aged 44, was arrested.
“He was subsequently released for report to the Public Prosecution Service.
“I would reiterate that the arrest was on suspicion of disorderly behaviour. This related to the individual’s behaviour towards officers. The arrest was not related to the content of any speech.”
Witness statements submitted to the PPS by several police officers say they attended the scene of the arrest after a number of reports from members of the public that an open air preacher in Larne had been committing “hate speech” or a “hate crime”.
The Police Ombudsman confirmed yesterday that it is investigating a complaint about an alleged wrongful arrest in relation to the matter.
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