“[T]o speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right.” The Iliad, Homer, 8th century BC
Here’s a positive news story – a victory for common sense and free speech. An Irish evangelical pastor, Pastor McConnell, has been cleared of being “grossly offensive”.
He was being prosecuted for a sermon during which he claimed “Islam is heathen. Islam is satanic. Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”. Now, I’m no big fan of his words. They’re clearly hurtful, hateful and divisive. But, nonetheless, they are his views. And they’re inspired by his religious beliefs. He has the right to air them. We have the right to hear them. We have the right to argue against them. And we also have the right to dismiss him as a hateful crank on account of them.
It’s worth noting that the original complaint was made by Dr Raied Al-Wazzan. This is a man who publically expressed praise for the Islamic State. That alone should set alarm bells ringing.
Rightfully the judge, Liam McNally, said it was “not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances”. He then went to say “The courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive.” More importantly he said the right to freedom of expression “includes the right to say things or express opinions that offend, shock or disturb the state or any section of the population.”
It’s always going to be the rude, bigoted and ignorant who fall foul of censorship first. And if they aren’t defended then it’s the more moderate positions that will be silenced next. An integral aspect of free speech is therefore to be subjected to hateful and unpleasant views. It might be unpleasant, but it’s far better than the alternative. And it’s only by allowing the open expression of such views that they can be properly challenged and overcome anyway. By censoring them we chase them out of the public sphere and into the shadows where they can fester in people’s minds unexposed to the counterarguments.
There are several countries on the continent where holocaust denial is illegal. This is ridiculous (both that such views exist and that such views can’t be expressed). It’s resulted in the highly controversial French comedian, Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, a holocaust denier, being given a two month prison sentence and a 9,000E fine in Belgium for anti-Semitic remarks.
Pastor McConnell openly stated that if he was fined he’d refuse to pay and refuse to accept anyone paying on his behalf. He insisted he’d go to jail. If we’re going to send people to jail for expressing their religious beliefs then are we any better than the Belgians for throwing Dieudonne in jail for expressing anti-Semitism? And in that case can we really condemn people like the Saudis for throwing bloggers in jail for expressing atheistic beliefs? Where does it end? Well, it probably ends with Bangladesh.
After all, this (highly recommended) article on the National Secular Society website describes 2015 as “the darkest of times in Bangladesh’s history” and the year when “Bloggers and publishers were assassinated one after another, attacked in the streets, at home or in their offices, and countless bloggers were persecuted by the infamous ‘Section 57’, a blasphemy law.” They were murdered simply for expressing their beliefs. That’s where this mentality ends.
Besides the ruling, another positive aspect of this story is Muhammad al-Hussaini. He deserves a huge amount of respect for his response. He’s a Muslim and Islamic academic who spoke outside the court in support of McConnell. He said “Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is … a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.
“Moreover, in a free and democratic society we enter into severe peril when we start to confuse what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say.”
We need more people like Hussaini – people who realise that freedom of speech is more important than being offended. His words also highlight that this is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims. Or indeed people of any particular beliefs. This is a conflict between freedom and censorship. Stephen Evans, the NSS campaign manager, summarised this point by saying “While we and many others disagree strongly with the tone and content of the Pastor’s remarks, a heartening and broad coalition of groups have stood up for his right to express his views.”
During my Lance’s Travels jaunt I stopped off a Speaker’s Corner in London. Speaker’s Corner isn’t completely comparable but a legal ruling regarding it perfectly summarises the issue. The judge in the case expressly stated that freedom of speech couldn’t just be limited to the inoffensive but must be extended to “the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome, and the provocative, as long as such speech did not tend to provoke violence.” Wise words indeed.