It has become very fashionable in the circles of the Great and the Good to make statements prefixed by variants of “I fully support freedom of speech provided that …….” There follows one or more excuses for suppressing freedom to express views which are at variance to the speaker’s own. I am sure many, if not all, of my readers have encountered similar proposed injunctions. I have come across examples far too numerous to mention in recent years but I will give a few examples.
At a hustings for the Northern Ireland seats in the European Parliament elections in 2014 the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland candidate, Anna Lo, then a Northern Ireland Assembly Member, emphasised that we should not even discuss leaving the European Union as it would cause instability. Rough translation: “If I don’t want to leave the EU neither should you.”
I attended a debate in Belfast on 10 September this year between Mufassil Ismam, a former Islamic preacher who has left the religion, and Shaykh Muhammad Umar Al-Qadri, an Islamic scholar based in Dublin. The latter stated during the debate that Islam fully supported free speech provided it did not cause disharmony. Rough translation: “You are free to say what you want about Islam provided you don’t criticise it.”
On 06 November this year I attended a discussion at Queen’s University, Belfast, organised by the Northern Ireland Humanist Society on Secularism, Politics, Religion and Freedom. One of the speakers was someone whom I have sparred with in the letter columns of The Belfast Telegraph, Professor John Barry, who is also a Green Party Councillor in North Down and Ards. However, being an enthusiastic secularist, I expected to be on the same side as Prof. Barry on this occasion. However, it wasn’t long before he stated that in a secular state everyone would be free to express their views (wait for it) provided they didn’t advocate intolerance or unacceptable views. Who rules on that? I enjoyed taking the professor to task on this in the wind up discussion and question section. I still am convinced that secularism is the way forward for democracy but that we will have to watch our backs.
What is most worrying is the raft of recent legislation on Hate Crime and Hate Speech which not only curtails free speech but provides legal sanctions to be used by enemies of democracy to silence their opponents. It is scandalous that trouble making autocrats can step forward and claim to be offended victims and then have the power of law take their side. All lovers of freedom must oppose such legislation and campaign to have free speech restored in our country. The preamble, “I fully support free speech provided …,” has already led to the even more sinister version, “I fully support democracy but ….”
Of course one should not have the right to incite people to commit crimes or publicly threaten to do so oneself. But today’s definition of Hate Speech now seems to include the possibility that someone listening to criticism of a group or individual and being given the idea to commit a crime. This is nonsense.
Free speech means I should have the right to liken major sections of Islam and extremist sections of Environmentalism, Protestantism and Catholicism to medieval superstition. I should have the right to condemn the weight of equality legislation which sits on our industry and educational establishments as ludicrous and unjust. I should have the right to point out that Irish Republicanism and Nationalism is a throw back to 19th Century tribalism. Some may disagree with me. They might even be offended. They have a perfect right to offend me and argue with me in return if they wish. Neither I nor anybody else has the right not to be offended.
Let us see that free speech is restored to our land.