Right to free speech ‘not absolute’ as vulnerable must be protected, McEntee says

Bill outlines ‘protected characteristics’ including race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnicity or national origin, sexual orientation, gender and disability

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said the legislation was aimed at providing protection to 'those who need it and those who currently experience extreme forms of criminal hate speech'. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/ Collins

The right to free speech is “not absolute” and limits may be placed on it by law to protect other fundamental rights, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has said.

Ms McEntee said she was confident that new legislation strikes the “right balance” between protecting freedom of expression and the rights of minority and vulnerable communities to be protected from hate speech.

The Minister was speaking as the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022 was being debated in the Dáil on Thursday. The Bill aims to provide stronger laws against the incitement of hatred than exist in legislation dating back to 1989 and it lowers the threshold for successful prosecutions.

It outlines a list of “protected characteristics” that includes race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnicity or national origin, sexual orientation, gender and disability.

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Helen McEntee said she wanted to stress that the proposed legislation was not about ‘enforcing politeness or political correctness’

Ms McEntee said she wanted to stress that the proposed legislation was not about “enforcing politeness or political correctness”, but about providing protection to “those who need it and those who currently experience extreme forms of criminal hate speech”.

“While individuals can hold and express opinions which others might find shocking or offensive, I want to make it very clear that it is extreme forms of hate speech that deliberately and recklessly incite or stir up acts of hostility, discrimination or violence which will be criminalised,” she said.

“People may hold different views and opinions, but we’re not here to criminalise those. People will not fall into conviction of hate speech. There are defences available for reasonable and genuine contributions to literary, artistic, political, religious, scientific or academic discourse which are made in good faith.”

The Fine Gael TD said online hate speech was an “increasingly insidious problem” which current legislation was not equipped to address and that the Bill had been crafted to ensure it would operate effectively “in both an online and offline context”.

Sinn Féin TD Louise O’Reilly said she hoped the legislation would go “some way” towards combating the racism experienced by the Traveller community.

“It truly is the last acceptable form of racism in our discourse, so much so that we have it in this chamber in the Dáil and in the Seanad, several of your Government colleagues and others who have had to apologise publicly for their use of racist language in relation to Travellers,” the Dublin Fingal TD said.

“Indeed, they have celebrated publicly their opposition to Traveller housing – absolutely disgusting. It is good that they have apologised for it, but it would be better if we could say with certainty that it’s not going to happen again.”

Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin also said hatred did not just come from “anonymous online groups” but members of the Oireachtas, and that it had to be called out “for what it is wherever it happens”.

“We have a TD who resides in this chamber who has said that asylum seekers are freeloaders, hoodlums and blaggards,” he said.

“We have another TD who speaks in this chamber and who has said that asylum seekers and immigrants need to be deprogrammed.

“We have members of your own party who have said that they won’t deal with black Africans. We have had the most disgusting, violent, appalling things said about the Traveller community for as long as I have been involved in politics and they generally get away with them.

“They may have a small period of suspension from a political party, but there is always a readmittance. That has to be called out and that has to stop.”

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times