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Councillor Detained for Alleged Hate Crime Following Advocacy for Freedom of Expression

Conservative councillor Anthony Stevens, 50, from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, has been arrested for alleged hate speech, after retweeting a video criticising police treatment of a Christian street preacher.

The video in question highlighted an incident from 2019 involving the arrest of preacher Oluwole Ilisanmi in London.

Mr. Stevens was arrested at his home and questioned about tweets from his personal account, which has only 76 followers. One tweet featured the video of Mr. Ilisanmi’s arrest, in which a police officer took his Bible. Mr. Ilisanmi was later awarded £2,500 for wrongful arrest. Mr. Stevens claimed he reposted the video to highlight “religious discrimination in law enforcement.”

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Mr. Stevens told the Telegraph that he learned he had been reported by a local Labour Party member. He was arrested on August 7, for a public order offence under the Public Order Act 1986, suspected of distributing material to incite racial hatred. He has been released on bail.

The Wellingborough Town Council member revealed police informed him that the original tweet was from a member of the far-right group Britain First. He stated that he wasn’t aware of this, or indeed of the existence of the group itself.

During questioning, Mr. Stevens says police also raised his support for Councillor King Mr. Lawal, a Northamptonshire councillor who was suspended for expressing anti-LGBT beliefs. Mr. Stevens had retweeted a petition to reinstate Mr. Lawal, emphasising support for free speech.

Mr. Stevens, claiming to be a “free speech absolutist,” defended the right to express opinions without agreement. He was questioned about Mr. Lawal’s statement that pride is a sin, to which he defended the right to voice such opinions.

Another tweet Mr. Stevens shared depicted burning a copy of the Koran, which he says he deemed an act similarly permissible as free speech.

The Christian Legal Centre is aiding Mr. Stevens, and he plans to complain to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Mr. Stevens stated that defending free speech isn’t an endorsement, and society must allow debate and expression.

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 [Mr. Lawal] in Northamptonshire.”

“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.”

He went on to detail the impact the arrest had had on his family, saying: “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.”

Speaking to The Epoch Times via text, the chairman of the Conservative Democratic Organization (CDO), David Campbell Bannerman, said: “This case highlights all that is wrong with hate crime legislation and its impact on free speech and free expression.

“For a decent Conservative councillor to be arrested for defending Christian views is pure Orwellian. Suella Braverman needs to sort this abuse of the judicial system.”

Speaking to the reason behind the arrest, Mr. Campbell Bannerman added: “This is a classic police tactic known as ‘chilling effect.’ There is no intention to prosecute, only to ‘chill’ free speech by threat of police action.”

The director of the Free Speech union, Toby Young, told The Telegraph: “Northamptonshire police have made a serious mistake in this case.

“Defending free speech isn’t a crime and Councillor 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.”

Former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, emphasised the need for adequate training of police officers on free speech rights and the law’s robust safeguarding of political expression.

He cautioned against cases revealing “an alarming ignorance” that could stifle democratic debate and noted the potential loss of “something precious, treasured by generations” in British society if causing offence were to be criminalised.

Northamptonshire Police confirmed an arrest had been made, stating it was in response to a hate crime report from social media. They stated: “On August 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 August 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.”

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