Grass roots pro democracy group Free Speech Ireland has been staging a series of canvases to raise awareness of what the group feels is an “affront to democracy” contained within the new draft legislation which was brought about by Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.
Speaking to Gript Free Speech Ireland spokesperson, Sarah Hardiman, said the group is planning to hold a public meeting in the Meath East region, and have also started a petition, to spread awareness of the limits on public discourse the legislation will bring about.
“We are deeply concerned about what this bill is about because the idea of hate speech as something that falls outside the projection of free speech applies to a set of circumstances like incitement to violence, calls for genocide, – truly horrific acts where people are in physical danger or there’s a serious threat to their life.”
“This bill is not for those circumstances. This is a very different kind of law targeting a very specific set of human behaviours that are based effectively on people being offended and how they choose to take offence or receive verbal interaction, and that’s a very different thing”.
“Even though someone’s language can be perceived as hateful there’s a massive difference between being able to call an Garda Siochana because you fear for your safety and calling them because you’ve had a negative interpersonal exchange with someone you don’t like. That could be something as benign as a joke being made at your expense”
Addressing whether similar laws have been used overseas to target those with politically unpopular opinions she said, “People in the United Kingdom and Canada and parts of the world where similar laws to this exist are facing criminal prosecution, in some cases it’s comedians, people putting memes on the internet, it’s people having legitimate political discussions on twitter and they’re getting knocks on their door from the police because there has been a complaint from someone who they disagree with politically online. “
Hardiman describes a recent incident in the UK where a member of the public was assaulted and placed under arrest by a uniformed officer after the pair had a heated exchange on the man’s property ‘in what looks like a pretty rural part of England’.
After the man called the officer a name, the officer entered onto the man’s land and proceeded to wrestle him to the ground and pepper spray him in the face as the man’s helpless wife begged the policeman not to hurt her husband.
“That’s the kind of situation the Gardaí could be expected to respond to under this new law”.
“This is not a unique situation. We could say that’s two people having a sort of ego based exchange and it’s terrible to see that as a result…but on a more serious note there are countries like the Netherlands and in France where politicians have been sued for their opinions on public matters. They’re being silenced.”
Speaking on the timing of the legislation and the nature of political discourse in Ireland Hardiman said, “We’re looking at this in a era of distrust were people want to call out things they don’t agree with or trust: maybe something is fake and maybe it’s not, but the crucial point is that we’re still in a free society in which that exchange can happen and you can call people crazy, stupid, or wrong and these are consequences for what you perceive to be a misrepresentation or dishonest maneuvering of something.’
“That’s the biggest concern, people like journalists or politicians can’t do their jobs, ordinary people can’t go to their TD and say, ‘I have this issue, it’s happening in my school etc’.
She continued, ‘I recently met a teacher who was very conflicted on how he would address a student who had a non conventional identity, adding ‘he wants to be kind’.
“We live in a society of civil people and how we interact with each other has always been left up to the culture and the society to determine what we can and cannot say to other people. If this now becomes a matter for the gardaí we’re going to see more people ending up in situations like Enoch Burke.”
Hardiman says she feels Burke knew the risk he was taking in this political climate to protect his free speech, “whatever you think of what a child should or shouldn’t be told as a minor regarding their identity if they’re not conforming in a conventional sense, I don’t think anyone really believes Enoch Burke is a danger to children”.
“In countries like Canada there are parents who are unable to criticise treatments their children are receiving with respect to gender transitions.”
She warned of the dangers of the politicisation of family decisions with respect to children’s medical care citing a case in Canada which was featured in Matt Walsh’s documentary, ‘What is a Woman’, where a father was told he was ‘a danger to his child’ because he wouldn’t accept his daughter receiving so-called ‘gender affirmation’ treatment.
“The state is getting this third parent role..nannying us and policing our jokes and interactions where sometimes you have to use choice words with someone because we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes you have to be very straight, blunt or sometimes unkind to people – depending on the interaction, and we’ve all had those – to get your message across.”
“Nobody wants to face a criminal charge and all the destructive consequences that come with that, so a bill like this isn’t coming from a democratic mandate from the Irish people, or any advocacy group, that I’m aware of.”
“Those in power have decided that this is in our interests without ever having run on a mandate for it – or in a general election, this is nobody’s talking point.” she added
‘The real question for the Irish public is why are you being silenced?’
When asked about the level of public awareness of McEntee’s bill she said, “It’s very often the case that people FSI interact with are not aware of the bill. We’re explaining it and people are very polite about the subject and thank us for our time., There’s a concern that this is being done so quietly”.
She continued, “This isn’t legislation on something to do with transport or cost of living that would make the headlines tomorrow, this is very much something that appears to us to be going in under the radar and it isn’t all that clear as to why it’s being brought in at all”.
Adding, ‘It may be an attempt for Ireland to ‘get in line with other countries where there is government overreach’.
“It’s perhaps a spirit of overreach in what the police should be involved in.” she said.
Hardiman said that in the UK ‘where freedom of speech isn’t as strong as it is here’ the police are already able to confiscate people’s devices and tell them that they are on watch lists letting them know they’re “now known to the police”, ‘they’re currently facing that level of overreach from the police.’
“It’s not in the interest of the Irish public for members of the Gardaí to be monitoring someone’s Facebook account to see what they’re saying. If someone or indeed a community feels their lives or physical safety are in danger it would make sense that those sort of threats would fall under the existing criminal procedures that are already there.”
Referring to Ireland’s preexisting 1989 Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act she concluded, “it’s not like this is filling some gap where the system is letting people down who are truly vulnerable.”