At University College Dublin, a recent event was held in which several guest speakers were invited to speak at the college to discuss the topic of freedom of speech. Avowedly supporting the incoming hate speech legislation at this event were Doireann Ansbro from the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, and Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward; while retired UCD professor Gerard Casey and Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín discussed the problematic nature of the government’s attempts to limit freedom of expression.
To preface his brief argument, Senator Ward sought to clarify that ‘to restrict freedom of speech doesn’t mean to be anti-free speech,’ subsequently reiterating a rehearsed ramble on the necessity of hate speech legislation.
Ansbro, similarly, spoke of the need to differentiate kinds of speech, using the example of a ‘hate speech pyramid’ in which the uppermost egregious tiers, such as incitement of violence, would be considered in breach of hate speech legislation, while more menial forms of offensive speech were to remain untouched.
It is notable that both Gerard Casey and Peadar Tóibín brought copies of the proposed legislation with them, so as to demonstrate the purposefully vague language of the document. Quoting from sections of the document, Tóibín criticised the lack of definition of terms, such as gender, while Casey questioned as to what exactly constitutes a protected characteristic.
While Ansbro reiterated her earlier sentiments, she counter-signalled Casey’s claims regarding the morality behind hate speech legislation. Casey opined that the individual ought not to be charged for the motive of a crime, i.e. hate, because they are, by law, required to be sentenced for the criminal act in of itself.
Reasoning that the purpose of a crime is not equivalent to the crime itself, Casey discredited the criminalisation of incitement of violence by reaffirming the idea of individual responsibility.
Peadar Tóibín, who continually spoke about the role of free speech in protecting ‘our democracy,’ criticised the government’s intent behind the legislation. Stating the sufficiency of contemporary legislation on matter such as incitement of hatred, Tóibín alleged that the government’s intention in introducing new legislation was to fabricate legal sanction on the imprisonment of individuals who otherwise, would be innocent of any criminal activities.
Casey, arguing against the notion of a protected characteristic, undermined the stated purpose of the incoming legislation through the observation that the Gardaí already provided minorities with special treatment.
Referencing the United Kingdom and its draconian measures to inhibit the freedom of expression of intellectual minorities, both Casey and Tóibín warned against Ireland following such an arbitrary, fickle, and unjust legislative path whose consequences can be observed from across the Irish Sea.
Towards the end of the discussion, Senator Ward, who spent much of his time disrespectfully scrolling twitter or playing mobile games on his phone, gave further comment on the legislation in the context of ongoing working-class protests against asylum seekers being forcefully placed in their communities.
Ward, a proud anti-racist, stated that hate speech legislation was necessary so as to prevent these protests, which he disdainfully characterised as ‘intimidatory demonstrations’ that have been egged on by spread of hateful ideas through social media.
Freedom of speech, though it ought to be regulated somehow in a digital era, should not be done in the cynical manner that the Irish government is trying to convince people to support a Bill which in effect, renders any online statement made, as a potential breach of hate speech legislation.