Council threatens to fine street preachers up to £ 20,000 after complaints of LGBT ‘hate speech’
Video footage shows a PSNI officer citing “hate speech” before arresting Ryan Williamson, 44, in Larne in August, which he said was due to his stance against homosexuality. He was released 30 minutes later pending a report to prosecutors.
Mr Williamson and his two colleagues Robert Ervine, 34, also from Loughbrickland, and Sean Paul Tully, 43, from west Belfast regularly preach outdoors around NI and the republic, but say that they come under more and more pressure from the PSNI and Gardai to tone down their comments on homosexuality, following the increase in complaints. Now Mid and East Antrim Borough Councils have served ‘reduction’ notices on the trio, seen by the News Letter, warning them not to use public address systems in Larne or face a fine , citing figures of up to £ 20,000.
In a letter dated November 12, 2021, an environmental health official wrote to Williamson, under the headline “Reducing Existing Noise and Prohibiting Its Recurrence.”
The letter stated that “noise equivalent to a nuisance exists and is likely to occur on Broadway and Mainstreet” in the city, which “comes from music, singing and loud voices amplified by a loudspeaker.”
As the “person responsible” for the nuisance, the letters indicate, the council “hereby prohibits the reappearance of said nuisance” and warns that “if you do or do not comply, you will be liable to a fine not exceeding not level five (£ 5,000) ”.
He also warns that a person who commits an offense in an industrial trade or business premises will be liable to a fine of up to £ 20,000, although he does not explain how this could apply to the trio concerning.
However, despite the warning, Mr Williamson says he was back in Larne a few weeks before Christmas.
“We spoke to the police that day and there was no problem,” he said. “Someone called them to tell them that we were preaching hate, so they came down to see what was going on. They were very fair on this occasion and after seeing what we were doing they said they were going back to talk to the person who recorded the complaint.
Speaking of the council’s cutback notice, he said, “I think this is just part of a bigger effort to silence the gospel.”
He said council officials visited him three or four times to see him preach to Larne.
“A guy said we were working on council property. On another occasion, an officer walked around with a notepad but refused to speak to me. But the next thing you know, I got a letter.
He gave his contact details to the officials during one of their first meetings.
“I don’t mind going to court on this because I think what they’re doing is totally wrong.”
When asked if he would pay the fine, he added, “I’ll take my chances in court with this.”
He also had a meeting with council officials in Banbridge, where he also preaches, just before Christmas, he said.
“They were very cordial and ready to talk. They said they would send someone after Christmas to establish the noise levels for the preaching. So I said it was good and that I was ready to work with them on it.
The constant complaint against him is that he engages in hate speech.
“It’s pretty much always the same thing, but maybe we’ll mention homosexuality more now because it’s a bigger problem than it’s ever been before.
“All you have to say is ‘homosexuality is a sin according to the bible’ and quote Romans chapter one and 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 and you get an explosive reaction no matter where you go.”
He says the police ombudsman is currently investigating his allegation of wrongful arrest in Larne in August. The trio were also arrested in Dundalk in September on public policy grounds and their case was adjourned until June.
Father Pat Buckley, an independent priest installed in Larne for 37 years, has been protesting against them in the city for several months.
“Well I’m glad someone is taking action against them because as a resident of Larne along with many other residents we don’t want them here,” he said of the council warning.
“Larne has had his problems over the years with divisions and people screaming and yelling at each other on the streets and we have come a long way in Larne and we want to keep the peace we have. In addition, we oppose their message to homosexuals.
He added: “I think we should have the freedom of speech and even the freedom to protest. But I also believe that we should not condemn and discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation.
He noted that although the book of Leviticus in the Bible condemns homosexuality, it also condemns the consumption of shrimp.
“I think it is very easy for the untrained and not the brightest to use the scriptures for their own purposes and I really consider them to be quite ignorant of understanding the scriptures,” he added.
The newsletter previously contacted a wide range of organizations but found no one to defend Mr Williamson’s arrest in Larne.
Without commenting on the specific case, the Alliance Party, NI Humanists and Amnesty International all agreed that freedom of expression must be protected, but must not get lost in hate speech. Project Rainbow was also invited to comment.
Local DUP MP Sammy Wilson and LGBT activist Peter Tatchell have both criticized the PSNI’s arrest of Mr Williamson. However, the Green Party called for new regulations to regulate the trio preaching outside Belfast City Hall, amid concerns over “loud speakers” and “targeting minorities”.
The trio also face public order charges for preaching after being arrested in Dundalk in September, with the case adjourned until June.
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