Debate rages over councillor’s gay slur ruling

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Debate is raging in Brighton and amongst the wider gay community regarding yesterday’s conviction of Tory Councillor Peter Willows over remarks he made linking gay people with paedophilia.

Willows, a member of Brighton and Hove City Council for 12 years, was sentenced to a one-year conditional discharge and ordered to pay £250 in court costs by Brighton Magistrates yesterday in a ruling welcomed by some councillors and members of the gay community, but seen as an attack on freedom of speech by others.

The 75-year-old was charged with Public Order Offences, after making the comments at a civil reception at Brighton Pavilion held in honour of the new Mayor.

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay charity Stonewall, who is campaigning for a law to combat discriminatory homophobic statements, praised the judgment.

He told “It is reassuring that courts take this sort of offence seriously

“This wasn’t a mild criticism, this was a purposed and deeply offensive association of gay people and paedophilia.

“We very much regret that Mr Willows felt the need to express this kind of prejudiced in the first place.”

Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton and Hove Council, Paul Elgood, one of the prosecuting witnesses in the trial, told Brighton newspaper The Argus, “It mattered that a guilty verdict was found. To me the punishment was irrelevant.”

He was backed by Labour councillor Warren Morgan, he said the remarks set a “bad example.”

Writing on the messageboards, he said: “Those of us in public office are supposed to set an example by not promoting homophobia and an atmosphere where violence against LGBT people might be encouraged.

“As elected representatives we have a duty to promote equality and a safe society where everyone is free, not made to feel like criminals because of their sexuality.”

However, the condemnation of Willows has not been felt throughout the gay community.

Jay Nemes and Johnny Core are two Brighton based gay men, they gave the disgraced councillor £40 towards his court costs after the verdict.

Mr Nemes told The Argus: “Freedom of speech in England ended on December 12, 2006.

“We have reached a stage where someone who makes an unfortunate comment and then apologises for it gets the full weight of the law brought down upon them.”

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Willows’ fate as a councillor is still pending, the local Conservative Party will make a statement later today, but have already distanced themselves from the remarks.

Local Tory councillor Gavin Ayling wrote on the messageboards earlier this year, “Tory attitudes are definitely different among the young but it is too much to ask that the older members of society change their lifelong held beliefs.

“Worse, I am seriously concerned that no-one here thinks that saying what you think, whether right or wrong, shouldn’t be a criminal offence.

“Cllr Willows is not right, obviously, but he should be allowed to be wrong publicly without having to go to court. Otherwise we’re not free.”

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