A Conservative councillor was arrested for an alleged hate crime after re-tweeting a video criticising how the police treated a Christian street preacher.
Cllr Anthony Stevens, 50, from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, told The Telegraph he was arrested at his home this month and escorted to a police station for questioning about tweets from his personal account, which has 76 followers.
One tweet involved a video showing how police had treated the arrest of Christian preacher Oluwole Ilisanmi in Southgate, London, in 2019.
A police officer snatched Mr Ilisanmi’s Bible after the preacher was accused of being Islamophobic. Mr Ilisanmi was later awarded £2,500 for wrongful arrest. The video, shared by Cllr Stevens in May, also showed footage of a police officer apparently stating that a Muslim preacher was allowed to preach on a high street.
Cllr Stevens, a member of Wellingborough Town Council, said he was told by the police officers that the original tweet he had shared had been posted by a member of Britain First, the far Right political party. Cllr Stevens said he had not known this and had not known who Britain First were. He said he only re-posted the video as “disturbing evidence of religious discrimination in law enforcement”.
Police also questioned why the Tory councillor had tweeted his support for Cllr King Lawal, a fellow Northamptonshire councillor, who has been “cancelled” for expressing his Christian beliefs in relation to LGBT issues, according to Cllr Stevens.
Cllr Lawal, 31, who is the only black councillor in Northamptonshire, was suspended by his local Conservative group in July, after he responded to images of Pride parades organised by LGBT groups, writing: “When did pride become a thing to celebrate. Because of pride, Satan fell as an archangel. Pride is not a virtue but a sin. Those who have pride should repent of their sins and return to Jesus Christ. He can save you.”
In July, Cllr Stevens retweeted a petition calling for Cllr Lawal’s Conservative positions to be reinstated, writing: “If you value free speech please sign and share.”
He said that police officers showed him his tweets regarding Cllr Lawal and asked him why he supported the petition. Cllr Stevens said he stated that he is a “free speech absolutist” and that even if he does not agree with someone, he believes in their right to express their beliefs.
He was then asked if he agreed with Cllr Lawal’s original tweet that pride is a sin, including LGBT events, according to Cllr Stevens. He said he replied by saying that “it did not matter whether he agreed with what he said or not, he believed he had the right to say it without having his life torn apart”.
Another tweet of interest to the police, shared by Cllr Stevens on his account, involved a video of a man burning a copy of the Koran. Cllr Stevens said his post reflected his view that he agreed that choosing to burn a copy of the Koran was part of someone’s “right to free speech in a free society”.
Cllr Stevens said he understood that he had been reported to the police by a local Labour Party member.
He was told he was under arrest for a public order offence under section 19 of the Public Order Act 1986. The police said he was suspected of distributing written material to stir up racial hatred. He has been released on bail.
He is receiving support from the Christian Legal Centre and is planning to make a complaint to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
Defending free speech
He said: “It is appalling and bizarre to be brutally arrested for sharing a petition in defending the right to free speech of a fellow councillor.
“The accusation of racial hatred is ridiculous and insulting. My only crime has been supporting the only black local councillor in Northamptonshire.”
He added: “Defending free speech is not the same thing as agreeing with what has been said, or admiring who is saying this.
“In a true democratic society, you cannot have people being arrested for a few tweets. We must have debate, we must have the freedom to criticise and offend each other, otherwise this country is going to swiftly go to pot.
“I was shocked when the police turned up at my house unannounced and came onto my property.
“Frankly, it was frightening, and no doubt intended to be so. I was then arrested and humiliated in front of my wife and children. Even if the police had legitimate questions to ask me (which I am yet to hear), there was no need to ambush me in my own house, arrest me, search me, keep me in the cell for the whole day, interrogate me or confiscate my phone.
“If elected members cannot share their beliefs or support each other in their right to share their beliefs without losing our jobs and being arrested, then we are in a very dark place.”
‘Essential’ police training
Lord Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions, said: “It is essential that police officers are properly trained in the importance of free speech rights and the particularly strong protection that the law gives to political speech.
“Some cases reveal an alarming ignorance and are bound to chill public participation in democratic debate. Causing offence is not, and never should be, a crime. If it becomes so, we will lose something precious treasured by generations of Britons.”
Toby Young, director of the Free Speech Union, said: “Northamptonshire police have made a serious mistake in this case. Defending free speech isn’t a crime and Cllr Stevens should never have been arrested, let alone held in custody for nine hours. This episode highlights the need for the police to receive proper free speech training.”
A Northamptonshire Police spokesman said: “On Aug 2, Northamptonshire Police received a report of a hate crime regarding posts made on social media.
“In response, a 50-year-old man was arrested on the morning of Aug 7 on suspicion of distributing written material to stir up racial hatred. He has been released on bail pending further enquiries.
“As this is a live investigation, the force is unable to comment further.”