London Olympic Games
In preparations for 2012 London Olympics, pricey hotels in London have increased their room rates, some implementing modified hotel reservations and cancellation rules Reuters

A disturbing new trend is slowly arising in Great Britain which if unchecked could spell the end of the relatively free society we live in and risks taking us back to a less tolerant age.

Today it emerged that an artist in Folkestone, Kent, had a visit from the police after complaints that one of his works, displayed in the front window of his gallery, was offensive.

The work in question certainly appears to be aimed at provoking if not offending its viewers. It shows David Beckham being crucified in place of Jesus, while wearing an England shirt, a crown of thorns and a loincloth. The Holy Grail also makes an appearance in the form of the Jules Rimet cup.

The artist, Johnny Cotter, claims that the work is not anti-Christian, but is meant to ask what people in the 21st century worship. This did not stop a group of Christians staging a minor protest outside his gallery, nor did it stop an unknown person or persons complaining to the police.

The police duly paid Mr Cotter a visit, telling him the work had generated complaints that it caused "offence". In the end however the police took no action after it became clear that the work would be taken off display by the end of this week.

The incident adds to a growing body of evidence that freedom of speech, long cherished by many, is slowly being undermined so as to avoid the heinous crime of "causing offence". Mr Cotter has subsequently, and rightly, contacted the police to find out what law they were acting under when they visited him.

In 2009 a similar incident occurred when a pair of Christian hoteliers were taken to court for allegedly telling a Muslim guest that they considered Mohammad to be a "warlord" during a discussion on their respective faiths.

The hoteliers, Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, were both cleared of any wrongdoing, although their business reportedly suffered significantly as a result of the negative publicity surrounding their hotel.

While both Mr Cotter and the Vogelenzangs may not have had any legal punishments imposed upon them, the very fact that such incidents became news is a worrying sign.

Personally I'm not sure which is worse, that there are people who think the police should arrest people who disagree with or offend them, or that the police, when receiving such requests, take them seriously enough to investigate and even bring the "offenders" to court, as happened to the Vogelenzangs.

Already the idea that minor personal disagreements should be the stuff of lawsuits and tribunals has gained acceptance in some official circles. Last year Kent Council was forced to pay thousands of pounds of taxpayers money in legal and compensation costs to a trade unionist who took offence at a "racist" Irish joke told by a Conservative councillor.

Now one may think that Irish jokes are racist and vulgar, or that Mohammad was a prophet rather than a warlord and one might also think that showing David Beckham on a cross is blasphemous. The fact that other people think differently is merely a difference of opinion however. It should not be grounds for arrest.

The second point in all this is that it greatly undermines the concept, not just of free speech, but of equality before the law.

The sad fact of the matter seems to be that if one is relatively well known as a public figure it is possible (or at least easier) to say more or less what you like, so long as it does not incite violence. However for the unknown everyman it is better to keep your opinions to yourself.

The Vogelenzangs went to court for calling Mohammad a "warlord". However controversial Dutch MP Geert Wilders receives police protection when he calls Islam's founder a "barbarian" and a "paedophile", while Douglas Murray, head of the Centre for Social Cohesion can get a round of applause when he refers to Mohammad as a "bad man" at a public debate.

This is not to say that Wilders and Murray should have been prosecuted as were the Vogelenzangs (although Wilders currently is on trial in his home country), but that everyone should have the same freedom to say what they really think, otherwise the police might have to start hanging around outside events such as "BBC Question Time" or "Intelligence Squared" debates in order to catch persistent offenders (for want of a better word) of peoples beilefs and sensibilities.

One of the most sinister aspects of this development is the rise of the phrase among ordinary people "You can't say that!" This self-censorship, which often kicks in when race or religion is being discussed, will do nothing to help foster a tolerant society and is likely to only breed resentment on the part of those who feel that their views are not only not aired, but not allowed.

True tolerance after all does not mean approving of other people's views, but allowing the views of those we disagree with to be heard, be they conservative, liberal, socialist, Islamic, Christian or atheist. This was once well understood, it is scarily becoming less so.