With ‘Je Suis Charlie’ seeming increasingly distant, is ‘Free Speech’ under threat in Northern Ireland?

It’s easy to support the concept of ‘Free Speech’ in principle, especially when the political winds blow in its favour.

Only earlier this year, many united behind the slogan of ‘Je Suis Charlie’, with strong words of condemnation for a media unwilling to show the cartoon for fear of ‘offence’ or ‘retribution’.

Yet, when tested within the daily practice of society, this support is prone to waiver. It is unpopular to defend an individual who ‘offends’, or whose speech has been classified as ‘hatred’.

There should be no shock that our media feared to broadcast the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ cartoons, for it is just a reflection of the society we have unintentionally created. A society which, with good intention, attempts to silence certain views in order to ‘protect’ those within it.

We were able to unite against the threat posed by ‘Radical Islam’, but are we able to stare down our own demons?

Free Speech, as defined under the ‘Harm Principle’, should be considered as the right, or mayhap the duty, of every citizens to voice their opinion, up until the point at which it incites violence.  In my opinion, this should be based upon two key factors, precisely what is remarked and the circumstances in which said comments are made.

From this perspective, the same speech given to a quiet theatre hall, should be considered in a different light if made to an angry crowd.

This results in a situation where individuals have the right to ‘radical’ speech, which we in society may be uncomfortable with. As clearly summarised by J.S. Mill:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”

An individual’s comments could be considered as offensive by those whom witness them, yet this is no reason to silence said opinion.

This is not just an ideological extreme with no merit in its defence, as one must note the opportunity to learn from this alternative perspective. There is a potential that through critique of this, and your own outlook, you may move closer to the truth. Furthermore, if the truth offended the majority, would it be morally correct to ban it from being spoken in society?

However, the foremost obstacle facing free speech advocates in modern society is a relatively new phenomenon, that historically philosophers have not been required to take account for, the Internet.

Whilst one’s offence is no reason to mobilise against free speech, is the radicalisation of our young people into ideologies of hatred, resulting in actions which they would have previously considered abhorrent?

Maajid Nawaz portrays the modern world as existing within the ‘age of behaviour’, were one’s identity is based more so upon ideas and narratives, than the society they reside within.

Not held back by the limitations of the state, extremists such as ‘Daesh’ have placed the internet at the heart of their propaganda machine. This campaign has been incredibly effective, with Khalid Mahmood MP predicting that  at least 1500 British Citizens have been recruited to fight in Iraq and Syria.

Whilst in Northern Ireland we are less likely to face the challenges of radical Islam, paramilitary influence and racism are the most probable negative repercussions of free speech in this new age.

The paternalist would argue that Government holds a duty to intervene, as in the long run these influences could result in violence, as seen via the surge of racist attacks in Belfast. This is as a result of the same logic adopted within the ‘War on Terror’, were if a freedom such as privacy lowers that of security, it should be curtailed.

In essence, as a minority of individuals may take a ‘vile’, yet peacefully orated idea online as a call to arms, we all must suffer.

If we follow this logic, being that an organisations ability to use our freedoms against us result in their abolition, this will naturally lead to a world without liberty. For, even those of us whom are most sympathetic to human nature, do not expect the end of terrorists groups with the intention of eliminating those who reject their worldview.

Furthermore, as requested by Christopher Hitchens, whom would you trust to draw up said limitations to free speech? Who would define what is, and is not for example, racist? As a Conservative, I am highly opposed to my Government attempting to define what is ‘extreme speech’, never mind banning certain speech from society altogether!

Although you may be comfortable with an individual’s ability to voice very specific ideas being banned, what if you hold the next ‘offensive’ view which society leads a crusade against? Is that different as it impacts upon you or is it still for the betterment of society as a whole?

If individuals are unable to trust anyone other than themselves to draw up said limitations, the experiment of limited speech is bound to decrease not only our current strides of progress, but the happiness within overall society.

But how is this all relevant to Northern Ireland you may request?

As we are all aware, during May 2014 Pastor McConnell made a sermon, which was steamed online, in which he accused Islam of being ‘heathen’ and ‘satanic’.

This committed the modern ‘sins of free speech’, being deeply offensive or ‘Islamophobic’, freely distributed online and coming from an individual with authority.

After rejecting an informed warning, he is to be prosecuted.

Whilst rejecting McConnell’s sentiment, his right to attack an idea such as Islam, upon whatever peaceful platform he so chooses, should be protected. He at no moment incited violence against Muslims, and although misinformed, his views should be considered and countered within a societal debate.

Ironically, in my experience, as an atheist, many of the atheists who reject the Pastors’ right to this freedom have been just as offensive about Christianity. One must wonder, would they request the protection of certain ideas or certain individual’s from the limitations of free speech?

One can never ensure that free speech does not result in violence, especially with tools such as the internet, but this is no reason to ban it.

On the contrary, the proposal to ban the free discussion of ideas will likely result in more violence, as those unable to express themselves feel isolated. An important factor within the radicalisation process.

With ‘Je Suis Charlie’ seeming increasingly distant, I fear the political winds have once again turned against us, and the benefits short-lived.

Andrew Wooster, ‘Conservative for Liberty Northern Ireland’.

  • Turgon

    Important to note that Pastor McConnell has received support for his right to make the comments he did (though of course not the comments themselves) from at least one Muslim Imam.

  • Korhomme

    Indeed. Just because the Pastor’s comments were daft, offensive, etc, is not a reason to censor them. Further, as according to GB Shaw, progress depends on the ‘unreasonable man’, perhaps we should welcome them, if only to clarify our own thinking (and the Pastor’s).

  • murdockp

    I am with Voltaire on this one.

  • Jag

    Did I see Sammy Wilson there today waving a pink (!) telephone in the air in support of Pastor James McConnell. Is that the same Sammy Wilson who blocked the reform of NI’s libel laws, making this corner of the UK a backwater which libel tourists and bottom-feeding lawyers flock to in droves? Vive la free speech, indeed!

    BTW, off-topic, there’s still an issue with the home page of slugger not showing the latest threads.

  • Turgon

    Jag if I update my page sometimes it then shows the most recent threads.

  • Jag

    If Islam is satanic, and with no less an authority as the Pastor telling me it is, am I in my rights to kick the living daylights out of those leaving Friday prayer at Wellington Park? After all, Pastor McConnell who is a man of great stature whose sermons are attended by 100s, who confidently bellows out Biblical-like statements and who wears a suit-and-tie, tells me week-in, week-out what I need to do to get into Heaven, and if I have any consideration at all for my Soul, surely I should bash in the brains of the Mohammedans, preferably on a Saturday night after a bottle or two of Buckfast. Or at least burn them out, and scrawl “local houses for local people” on their homes. They’re satanic for Chrissakes!

  • LordSummerisle

    Ah yes… The greatest thing he never said. (Surprisingly I am misquoting McCullough at the same time). Miss Hall never receives the credit. As E.B. Hall says… Does not sound as sexy as According to Voltaire…

  • Mister_Joe

    If you click on the Northern Ireland section you can see the “missing” blogs.

  • Mirrorballman

    Bel Tel simultaneously leading the campaign to support the free speech of Pastor McConnell and the campaign to ban Frankie Boyle from the west Belfast festival….Ironic….

  • james

    Personally, I’m no fan of Frankie Boyle -I find him crass and unfunny – so I have heard little of his act, but I would be surprised if any of his public utterances are as offensive and dangerous as this…. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ch5u8YbOyIE

    So if we are talking censorship….

  • james

    I think the real issue here is how we deal with assimilation if immigrants, and respect their rights whilst not allowing the intolerant and the fanatics one finds in any group to seize upon our differences and incite racial or sectarian hatred. What a pity that all you seem to see is another opportunity to bait your political opponents with the grotesque Republican caricature of Protestants – who’ll be well taken care of in the fabled UI.

  • gero

    Not all Muslims in NI are immigrants and this clown doesn’t need republicans to make him a caricature. Not being a republican, a nationalist nor a catholic I find his views offensive and divisive. He should look after the skeletons I his own family’s cupboard before spewing bile around.

  • paulgraham7567

    And indeed for many years his “freedom of speech” rights were censored.

    I think it’s a fine line. The test is whether or not the words are likely to incite others to break the law. In a country as divided as our own, the line becomes extremely fine.

    Whilst I wholeheartedly disagree with the content of the pastor’s speech, I would defend his right to hold those views to the hilt.

    And whilst I believe he is a bitter old fool, he has that right in a just democracy.

    This, I believe is a show trial, by a DPP who feels the need to be seen to act. I do not believe the evidence passes the legal test for a conviction, but only time will tell.

  • paulgraham7567

    Good point. Condemning racial intolerance by racially stereotyping another is hypocrisy indeed.

  • Jag

    I’m not baiting anyone James, except perhaps Pastor McConnell’s army of supporters who unquestioningly think he has an unfettered right to free speech. He doesn’t, nor do you, nor do I. It has to be calibrated against other competing rights, such as right not to be beaten up because someone has whipped up racial tension.

    I think the PSNI and PPS were correct to take action against the pastor for his comments, because coming from such a person in a position of such authority in the community, his views could give succour to, or conceivably could incite, those who would try to beat up or burn out Muslims. But all of that is now in the hands of the courts, and I can certainly see how debatable it all is. Even if James emerges victorious, a marker has been placed before those in authority that they need to be mindful of their remarks when broadcast.

    Interesting point though, do we get such views coming from the Catholics? I honestly can’t recall any recent examples; there was that priest who said yoga was bad (did he say “evil”, I can’t remember) but all he got for his trouble was derision; I don’t think anyone beat up any yoga practitioners as a result. You do get handed little pamphlets by some people in the streets telling us how bad homosexuality is in fairly strong terms; I’ve never paid much attention to the sources, but they do appear to all be Protestant, but I’d stand to be corrected on that. A half century ago, you would certainly have priests denouncing all sorts of practices and indeed people from the pulpit but that age has passed, I think, in the Catholic church.

  • Jag

    “I would defend his right to hold those views to the hilt.”

    As would most people, Paul. The problem is he didn’t just hold them, he broadcast them, and in such an angry wee place as this, James’s words could be interpreted as a sikemboy by some of our less enlightened folks.

  • Jag

    Racial stereotypying? Take a look at the crime statistics on racial hatred crimes, they are markedly skewed towards areas that would be traditionally be identified as loyalist. Perhaps the good Pastor McConnell might reflect on those facts before embarking on his vainglorious travesty of playing the victim, and accept some responsibility for the words he broadcasts.

  • Jag

    Isn’t that like a rapist being supported by a murderer, with both complaining about evidence standards. Imams, priests, rabbis are not the correct peer group to offer judgement on Pastor McConnell’s broadcast, the police, PPS and courts, representing the law and society, are.

  • james

    “I think the PSNI and PPS were correct to take action against the pastor for his comments, because coming from such a person in a position of such authority in the community, his views could give succour to, or conceivably could incite, those who would try to beat up or burn out Muslims.”

    I wonder would you feel the same applies to Gerry Adams and ‘break these bastards’?

  • Turgon

    “The problem is he didn’t just hold them, he broadcast them”

    And Charlie Hebdo broadcast their views to world-wide acclaim.

    That in no way justifies the wicked murderous attack on them but if Charlie Hebdo is to be allowed, nay encouraged, to broadcast potentially divisive cartoons why is Pastor McConnell to be prosecuted for broadcasting potentially divisive sermons?

  • Jag

    Good question, who were the “bastards” referred to by GA, and what do you think he meant by “break”?

  • Jag

    Good question, what was the audience for Charlie Hebdo, that is, who subscribed to that magazine and, considering that audience, what do you think CH published which might have caused difficulty?

  • Turgon

    It is kind of odd to say it but I thought the most coherent and well argued response to Charlie Hebdon was by George Galloway. His speech is here.

    It may be too anti Charlie Hebdo for my liking and I think they had the right to publish but he makes some rather salient points.

    Personally I thought it a cheap nasty and poor set of cartoons which whilst they should have the freedom to publish they should not have been lauded but rather condemned for publishing due to their crass tastelessness.

  • Jag

    Maybe will look at that later Turgon, but the point I was making was CH had a tiny, tiny audience, I think 20,000 issues in a country with a population of 70m. It was also very intellectual, so you were unlikely to find sikemboys reading it.

    And that’s the difference. Pastor McConnell had a large audience of people, including younger sikemboys and that is why I believe the PSNI and PPS proceeded with the case.

    It’s not black-and-white though, it’s a question of judgement and proportionality. I think the PSNI and PPS got it right, remains to be seen how the courts will deal with it, but the fact the pastor doesn’t seem to appreciate the seriousness and validity of the case against him, is worrying.

  • james

    You’d have to ask the man himself, to be sure, or perhaps one of the fawning sycophants who were around his feet at the time. Michelle Gildernew, perhaps could shed some light?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    People in NI are going to get a reputation as being easily offended pansies; another nail in the coffin of the image of the hard nosed Ulsterman.

  • Jag

    Well James, if you don’t know, then let’s all assume the “bastards” were ISIS and “break” meant bomb. Are we all happy so?

  • james

    Well, I’m sorry to point this out but that comment is ridiculous on a number of levels and speaks volumes for the ostrich mentality of your common or garden Sinn Fein supporter. The context of the remarks made by the SF quasi-dictator were the continued assault by Republicans on unionism generally, and the famed ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy as utilized by the Sinners and indeed extremist Islamists over in England. Whether he was talking about the DUP, UUP, or just the average Protestant (or indeed Catholic who doesn’t toe the SF line) voter, or all of the above, is unclear. As to ISIS, it would be very much out of character if Adams were to criticize them – given that such have generally been considered brothers in arms by the IRA and SInn Fein both. From the PLO to Gadaffi, they have had many chatmless allies down the years. In fact, in former years the IRA would have trained groups much like ISIS in exchange for funding. So, no, I don’t think he was referring to ISIS.

  • james
  • james

    Sadly, the hard nosed Ulsterman is up against a serpentine nemesis whose sole purpose is to insult, provoke and offend. Part of the Trojan Horse strategy of SF. So I suppose it is understandable that patience wears a bit thin.

  • james

    Do you think Martin’s words in the video I posted above might be interpreted as “sikemboy?”

  • Jag

    Hi James, you see I was asking a rhetorical question before. I know the answer and if you’d been paying attention, you’d know the answer as well. When GA was referring to “bastards” he wasn’t referring to those born
    outside wedlock, nor was he referring to ISIS,he was in the speech you refer to , referring to the bigoted element in unionism. That’s a subset, hopefully a small subset of unionism, you know what “bigoted” is, right? And when he said “break”, he wasn’t referring to physical violence but putting an end to that bigoted element. He could have just have easily said “rehabilitate the bigots” or “reform the sods”, but he used the phrase “break the bastards”. Does that count as hate speech or inciting others to violence? No, of course not. In my opinion, the same can’t be said about James McConnell.

    Having said all that, GA is, like Pastor McConnell, a person
    of authority and he needs to be careful and appreciative of his influence. “Bastards” is not a term he should have used, even for a subset, hopefully a small subset,
    of unionism. However, it doesn’t, in my opinion,rise to the level of hate speech or incitement to violence.

  • Jag

    I haven’t seen the video, but judging from the still above and MMG’s hairstyle, it is some years (decades) old. Remember in the 1970s, you had BBC sitcoms like “it ain’t half hot mum” which the BBC has decided never to screen again because it’s now judged racist. Four decades ago, blacks were golliwogs, three decades ago, gays were faggots, two decades ago, Japanese people were japs and a decade ago, Irish were Paddies. Times change, standards change.

  • james

    “Times change, standards change.” You haven’t seen the (short) video. Fair enough, though it is simplicity in itself to click on the link, so I will tell you what happens in it. A younger Martin McGuinness says that Catholics and Nationalists who don’t fall in behind the militant Republicans deserve a death sentence. Do you think that ‘standard’ was acceptable then?

  • james

    “Does that count as hate speech or inciting others to violence? No, of course not.”

    Uhmm….I would say it does, actually. It certainly seems to excite the rather excitable and easily-led Michelle Gildernew.

  • Jag

    Missed that, has Michelle Gildernew thumped someone?

  • Jag

    You’re saying that during a Civil War, an acknowledged member (leader?) of the IRA calls for killings of his enemies, collaborators and those who don’t support the IRA? Ah, gwan, he didn’t, did he?

    Times change, standards change. Such a statement today would definitely land a political leader in hot water and a jail cell.

  • james

    This is, I believe, from the 1980’s. Martin, presumably crossing his chest and hoping to die, says he left the IRA in 1974, didn’t he. Otherwise he still has some jail time to do for directing terrorism, if he was (as you claim) an IRA leader at this time. It’s all so very confusing. Civil war, you say? If that’s the case, Martin and some of his comrades would be indictable for war crimes, and a laughing stock for crying foul every time British soldiers managed to take out some of their ‘soldiers’. Furthermore, you write that “during a Civil War, an acknowledged member (leader?) of the IRA calls for killings of….. those who don’t support the IRA”. That would include some current Sinn Fein voters who didn’t support the IRA at the time. Curiouser and curiouser.

  • Jag

    Why would your source of religious guidance, telling you something is the worst possible thing in the world, encourage you to do harm to that something? Is that what you’re asking. Seriously, have you no soul.

  • Jag

    I don’t think it was a civil war, I know it was. Two clearly identifiable sides in the same country/territory killing each other in substantial numbers for control over that country/territory. What would you call it?

    Of course, it didn’t start with one side donning a top hat and tails and visiting the other side’s embassy to hand over an official-looking declaration of war. The ending was formal enough though with the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

    Not sure what laws govern civil wars, they seem to be ad-hoc. The peace agreement governs your questions. Ex-members of certain organisations are liable to be prosecuted. Ex-combatants are liable to tried and convicted and serve special prison terms. So, the perpetrators of La Mon or Monaghan/Dublin, even if convicted may get only two years. On the other hand, British state military aren’t covered by the GFA, so if they unlawfully killed someone, even a combatant, then it’s potentially life in prison for them. At least, that’s how I understand the GFA.

  • Jag

    ” Do you agree with summary execution of prisoners incidentally?” Now that is a head-scratcher, will have to come back to you, but don’t hold your breath.

    We have rules; they’re there in the GFA. Acts in 1969-1998 civil war can be pursued legally. Anyway, I going to say adieu on this discussion. As it relates to the topic at hand, I would maintain that different standards apply today than even a decade ago. Let’s see what the courts decide with James McConnell but even if he is acquitted, I think it is a good thing that those in authority exercise care in what they broadcast.

  • John Collins

    Well I remember the British Prime Minister being very publicly entertained by Colonel Gadhafi and Mr Pinochet was entertained at Chequers (no less) by Mrs Thatcher. So it ill behoves any Unionist for condemning anybody else for associating with dictators.