The Irish Times view on hate crime: the case for new law

A former judge has called for legislation after a rise in hate speech aimed at minorities

Former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon, who presides at citizenship ceremonies, has called for new legislation as well as accurate information about how bad the problem is. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon, who presides at citizenship ceremonies, has called for new legislation as well as accurate information about how bad the problem is. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan should examine whether new legislation is needed to combat hate crime following increasingly frequent reports of attacks on minorities. Former High Court judge Bryan MacMahon, who presides at citizenship ceremonies, has called for new legislation as well as accurate information about how bad the problem is. The former judge, who chaired a working group on the direct provision system, which accommodates asylum seekers, said there had been “a big rise in hate speech” and he pointed to social media as one of the prime causes of the problem. He suggested that a committee should investigate it fully and provide accurate information so that new legislation can be drafted.

There have been several recent high-profile incidents of racism in Ireland including online death threats last month against a mixed-race couple who appeared in a Lidl advert.

Social media is tremendously useful, but it can also be immensely destructive and harmful. Hate speech is particularly insidious and needs to be tackled in a coherent way. To date, the big tech companies which operate social media have reneged on their responsibilities to control hate speech on the platforms they operate. Legislation to force them to adopt the same standards as the print and broadcast media is long overdue.

There are obvious practical challenges in trying to force such powerful multinational tech companies to behave responsibly. These firms are vastly rich and powerful and their reach extends across national boundaries. But that makes it all the more critical that the authorities here and in other EU states tackle the issue in whatever way they can.

A balance must always be kept between legislation to combat hate crime and the right to freedom of speech. A clear distinction needs to be drawn between what is covered by the description of hate speech and what is merely offensive. The distinction is often not easy. That makes the case for great care in framing any new legislation but it does not justify inaction.

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