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There’s still time to save free speech in Ireland

The draconian hate-speech bill could make thoughtcriminals of us all.

Lorcan Price

Topics Free Speech World

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The resignation of Eamon Ryan, leader of the Irish Green Party, is welcome news to those of us who care about free speech. The Greens have played a leading role in advancing the new Irish hate-speech bill, which is currently stalled in parliament. This draconian bill has the potential to make Ireland among the worst violators of this most basic human right in the West.

If passed, the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022 – to use its full name – would outlaw the communication of material or speech that might ‘incite hatred’ against people with certain protected characteristics (such as race, religion and gender). It would even criminalise the act of having offensive material in your private possession.

Given that Green support has been crucial in moving the hate-speech bill through the parliamentary process, Ryan’s decision to step down could be a critical moment. Now is the time for Ireland’s political leaders to take a clear stance in defence of free expression and to scrap this dangerous bill once and for all.

Thankfully, opponents of the hate-speech bill have drawn plenty of allies, including those from outside Ireland. The bill first caught international attention due to sharp criticism from Elon Musk in April 2023. Earlier this year, Musk promised to both directly challenge the law if passed and to fund the legal defence of any Irish citizens caught in its net.

Then, last month, international free-speech experts convened at the Dublin Free Speech Summit. Organised by Free Speech Ireland with support from ADF International, the event gathered figures including Michael Shellenberger and Graham Linehan, as well as Irish senators Rónán Mullen and Sharon Keogan. The summit warned about the international implications of the hate-speech bill, particularly given Ireland’s role as a hub for social-media companies.

Wherever they exist, hate-speech laws stifle peaceful expression and contravene basic human rights. A critical point of contention with the Irish bill is the lack of a clear definition as to what actually constitutes ‘hatred’. In 2023, then Irish justice minister Simon Harris (who is now taoiseach) exacerbated fears by refusing to pen any definition. According to Harris, doing so would hamper the ability of the ‘prosecution to secure convictions’. Such a climate of legal uncertainty would undoubtedly have a chilling effect on speech, driving people to self-censor to avoid the risk of criminal charges under the vague new law.

Perhaps most shockingly, the bill proposes criminalising the possession of material deemed capable of inciting hatred, with penalties of up to five years in prison. That could mean that saving an offensive meme on your phone could possibly land you in jail. Even refusing to hand over your device passwords to the police might be enough to get you in legal trouble. This would further erode personal privacy, granting the Irish authorities sweeping powers to investigate and potentially punish people based on completely subjective interpretations of ‘hate’.

This is exactly what we have seen happen elsewhere, in countries that have adopted similar laws. Just look at the case of Finnish parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen. Since 2019, Räsänen has been at the centre of a vicious legal battle after she tweeted that she was uncomfortable with her church supporting LGBT Pride. To drive home her point, she also posted some Bible verses that pointed to the Christian view of marriage and sexuality.

Following two unanimous acquittals, the Supreme Court of Finland has now agreed to hear her case. But Räsänen’s ordeal just proves that hate-speech laws will inevitably end in prosecuting the everyday expression of ordinary people.

Ireland may not yet have gone down that path, but free speech is already in a bad way here. Polling from March this year revealed a deep-seated concern among the Irish about the erosion of free speech. A quarter indicated that they already feel restricted in expressing their views and opinions in social settings or in their place of work or study. If this is the Irish reality now, imagine the censorious atmosphere if the new hate-speech bill is passed.

Ireland stands at a crossroads. The proposed hate-speech bill, while ostensibly designed to curb violence and protect vulnerable groups, risks undermining a foundational democratic principle. But it’s not too late for the government to put a stop to it. As history shows, once the state begins to curtail any form of expression, it sets a dangerous precedent. Censorship and the suppression of dissent are never far behind.

Lorcán Price is an Irish barrister and legal counsel for ADF International.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech World

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