Government Department policies clash on Freedom of Speech

The government has two different policies in relation to freedom of speech. The Department of Justice has published its policy on a way forward to protect freedom of speech in the General Scheme of the Criminal Justice (Hate Crime) Bill 2021. However the Department of Education still has a policy to teach students to respect beliefs, which is a policy that undermines freedom of speech.

Department of Justice

In a statement in April Justice Minister, Helen McEntee stated that she had secured Government approval to publish the General Scheme of the Criminal Justice (Hate Crime) Bill 2021.

One of the protected characteristics under the Criminal Justice (Hate Crime) Bill 2021 is religion. This also covers those who have no religion.

In order to ensure the protection of freedom of speech, the Minister said that the constitutional rights of freedom of expression and of association will be respected in the new legislation.

“The legislation we are working on will be evidence based, while respecting the vital constitutional right to freedom of expression and association.”

She went on to say that:

“All legislative proposals are developed and put forward bearing in mind the provisions of the Constitution and our human rights obligations including those contained in the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003. The right to freedom of expression will therefore be fully considered in the development and drafting of any new legislation by the Office of the Attorney General.”

We welcome this assurance on freedom of speech by the Minister for Justice, and that the legislation will bear in mind Ireland human rights obligations under the European Convention.

Department of Education

Unfortunately, successive Ministers for Education support the undermining of freedom of speech, as they have a policy to teach children to respect beliefs. There is no Constitutional or human rights obligation to respect religious beliefs or non religious beliefs. There is an obligation to respect the right of all to hold religious or philosophical beliefs.

Obliging people to respect beliefs would undermine freedom of conscience and speech, especially as some sincerely held beliefs are harmful. For example it clearly undermines freedom of conscience if children are taught to respect the belief that marriage is only between a man and a women, and it undermines freedom of expression if children are prevented from challenging such a belief by openly criticising it as unjust and harmful.

The aim of second level syllabus Religious Education Course, and also the Goodness Me Goodness You course in ETB Community National Schools, is to teach students to respect beliefs.Obviously, denominational schools will teach students to respect their religious beliefs and not to be critical of religious ideas and beliefs.

This policy is contrary to freedom of speech, as there is no Constitutional or human rights obligation to respect beliefs. Students should be taught to challenge beliefs but to respect the right to all to hold such beliefs even if we find those beliefs offensive. There is no right not to be offended.

The Venice  Commission 

The Venice Commission has said that:

“76. The Venice Commission underlines however that it must be possible to criticise religious ideas, even if such criticism may be perceived by some as hurting their religious feelings.”

“77. It is also worth recalling that an insult to a principle or a dogma, or to a representative of a religion, does not necessarily amount to an insult to an individual who believes in that religion. The European Court of Human Rights has made clear that an attack on a representative of a church does not automatically discredit and disparage a sector of the population on account of their faith in the relevant religion38 and that criticism of a doctrine does not necessarily contain attacks on religious beliefs as such.39 The difference between group libel and individual libel should be carefully taken into consideration.”

There is no consistency between government Departments in relation to freedom of speech. One Department is seeking to protect Constitutional and Human rights in relation to freedom of speech, while another Department is undermining it by teaching students to respect beliefs.

Atheist Ireland