Concerning: Hate speech in Ireland
A proposed Criminal Justice Bill could have an impact on free speech within Ireland, but also potentially reaching far beyond—given that the country is home to a number of major tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook/Meta, Google, Airbnb, Pintrest, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Yelp, Stripe, Etsy, Microsoft, Paypal, Adobe, Amazon, Apple, and many others. Ireland’s low corporate tax rate has made it attractive over the years to many corporations who have moved their headquarters there.
The new legislation would provide greater restrictions around speech that some feel goes too far—protecting things such as gender identity and sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and disability. In other words, what can be described as “hate speech.”
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, who introduced the bill, argued that the State needs to protect those who are "constantly in fear of abuse simply because of who they are." Previous rules, supporters of the the new legislation argue, were not far-reaching enough.
Currently, “hate speech” is defined as something that’s purposefully targeting others for such characteristics and it is not necessarily illegal. However, the Prohibition of Incite to Hatred Act of 1989 makes it an offence to engage in certain speech that is likely to incite hatred against a group of people. Legally, though, there was always a clause by which a defendant could argue that they did not intend to spread hatred.
However, under the new Criminal Justice Bill, a person will be deemed liable for a hate crime even if they claim they did not intend it. It will also be easier for prosecutors to secure convictions, by allowing them to rely on the use of hostile slurs, gestures or symbols. The bill defines an offense of “possession of material likely to incite violence or hatred against a person or group of persons on account of their protected characteristics with a view to the material being communicated to the public.” This means that even if the material is on a private computer and was not published, a claim can be made that it may be there for the intention of publication. The phrasing states that if it is “reasonable to assume that the material was not intended for…personal use,” then “the person shall be presumed, until the contrary is proved, to have been in possession of the material (with a view to the material being communicated to the public).” Rather alarming phrasing since there’s an inherent presumption of guilt rather than innocence—burden proof is on you. Not to mention that it’s enough to have an offensive meme downloaded onto your computer for you to be subject to penalties. Don’t want to hand over access to your devices to the authorities? You can be fined €5,000 or face up to a year in jail. Draconian, to say the least. A violation of privacy, civil liberties AND speech.
If found guilty, the maximum penalty is up to five years in prison.
Of course, the idea that something is “likely to incite hatred or violence” is already a tricky one to quantify. It’s one thing to call for violence and another to share a thought or opinion and predict its effects on others—something that’s not exactly within our control, short of master hypnosis skills.
Holding a speaker criminally responsible for the interpretation and, as the case may often be—misinterpretation—of the listeners, seems like a rather dangerous road to embark on.
Further, there’s an inherent vagueness in “hate speech.” What is it? Who gets to define it? How many people need to agree? How often do we change those definitions? What are the exact lines that cannot be crossed? If one can be fined, let alone imprisoned for saying certain words, should those words not at least be spelled out clearly?
The Bill is currently going through the Seanad, which is the upper house of the Oireachtas (the Irish legislature). If it passes, it can have a truly chilling effect on speech both in public and private. And, it may well spread far beyond just Ireland.
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