There's nothing funny about demoting people for things they say to friends on Facebook

If you believe in reason and debate as an instrument of civilisation, stand up for the right to tell people what they do not want to hear

Amol Rajan
Monday 22 October 2012 19:44 BST
Facebook (Getty Images)

Did you hear the one about the bloke who said he was against gay marriage in a Facebook message? He was demoted from his job and ended up taking his employer to court.

Except it isn't a joke. Adrian Smith, 55, allegedly had a 40 per cent pay cut after saying a gay wedding held in Church was an “equality too far”. Trafford Housing Trust, for whom Smith works, says he breached their Code of Conduct.

We must have a horrifically debased view of liberty to think this a reasonable use of police or legislative time. George Orwell got it right when he said that liberty, if it means anything, is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. Manchester County Court is now engaged in a legal process because somebody said something in a Facebook message that some other people might find offensive. Well, I’m sick of people saying they’re offended when they ought to grow up and shut up instead.

Mr Smith is wrong about same-sex marriage, as we have forcefully argued on In fact we set up a petition in favour of it, which thousands of you have signed. Extending marriage to same-sex couples would strengthen, not weaken, a precious institution. But it is incumbent on those of us who believe in reason and debate as an instrument of civilisation to give air to views we don't like. And it is wholly consistent to believe, as I do, in legalising same-sex marriage while being a strong defender of free speech.

To oppose the right of Mr Smith to vent his views on Facebook in this way is a kind of state-sponsored madness, for three reasons. First, as with all censorship, it casts the rest of us as potential victims, unable to cope with things we don't like, like children forced to confront chores or broccoli. But we’re adults, and being adult means putting up with things you don’t like, such as Christians who want to stop gays being married.

Second, it is impracticable. Do we really want the State to busy itself patrolling social networks, for views that may hurt the emotionally meek? Third, it suggests a kind of historical myopia, in which we disregard the lessons of centuries and promote the very authoritarianism that led to such suffering and barbarism everywhere it was practised. Freedom is precious, and more easily removed than granted. It should therefore not be removed so unthinkingly.

I have no idea how productive an employee Mr Smith is, or the detail of his career. But modest opinions alone are no warrant for a demotion, and reacting hysterically to your opponents is the sort of behaviour we expect from Archbishops, not housing associations.

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