The Irish government is pressing forward with a new law to criminalize "hate speech" following the recent stabbing of four Dubliners, including three schoolchildren, by an Algerian resident of the country. As Ireland processes this atrocity, it must be asked—what does criminalizing speech have to do with preventing brutal crimes of this magnitude?
In recent months, tensions have flared in Ireland—mirroring those throughout Europe—regarding the country's immigration situation, with nationwide protests demanding government action. The stabbing incident gave rise to riots in Dublin. Coming across as both tone-deaf and opportunistic, the government's positioning of the proposed "hate speech" law as the solution to the evidently mounting crisis has drawn international condemnation, and for good reason.
What happened in Dublin is a horrific tragedy that demands targeted government action with regard to the specific issue at hand—peace and security on the streets of Ireland. Criminalizing free speech, the cornerstone of any democracy, is in no way going to solve this issue.
The proposed Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill in Ireland follows the same pattern that we see across much of the West—censorship breeds more censorship, and once the state is empowered to restrict free speech, there is no logical stopping point. The law, currently before the upper house of the Irish Parliament, where it has been stalled since July, will have enormous repercussions for free speech in the country if passed.
Most strikingly for a "hate speech" bill, the legislation offers no definition of what "hate" entails, meaning even peaceful expression could fall prey to criminal prosecution. The Irish minister for justice has rejected the inclusion of any definition, saying it would hamper the ability of the prosecution to secure convictions. How is the public to know what kind of speech could be subject to prosecution? Given that "hate" is an impossible word to define in law (and is not defined in this bill), this paves the way for basically any expression considered unfavorable to be prosecuted in the future.
And not content with its existing array of free speech restrictions, the Irish government's proposed law goes further than most others in Europe by including an offense for the mere possession of material that could lead to hatred, with punishment of up to five years in prison. Coupled with a provision that would render refusal to give a password to an electronic device a crime, it's not hard to imagine Ireland rapidly descending into an authoritarian state with the passage of this law.
As drafted, the law would allow police near-blanket authority to search and possibly find materials that are "hateful," rifling through text messages, emails, and personal effects to find prosecutable content. The thought of Irish police raiding homes to seize devices and banned literature invokes thoughts of the novel 1984 and the darker moments of the last century. It is a far cry from the liberal democratic ideals that the Irish government claims to hold.
On the issue of gender, the bill has a vague and open-ended series of "protected characteristics," allowing for an infinite number of "gender identities" such as "two-spirit," "non-binary," and "demi-girl." These would be given the protection of criminal law under this legislation, potentially creating a legal scenario where perceived offense against a non-exhaustive list of identities can be met with the full force of the law.
The reality is that "hate speech" laws target peaceful expression. We need only look elsewhere in Europe to see the kind of abuses that these laws engender. Finnish parliamentarian and grandmother Päivi Räsänen was recently acquitted, following a four-year legal ordeal after having been prosecuted by the state for peaceful expression, including on Twitter. She was subjected to hours of interrogation and two trials on three criminal charges under the Finnish criminal code's section on "agitation against a minority group."
ADF International supported Räsänen's defense, serving on her legal team. From first-hand experience with the egregious implications of "hate speech" laws, we are ringing the warning bell to highlight how Finnish authorities did exactly what we fear will happen in Ireland—digging into her past to find content deemed offensive and pushing for prosecution based on her writings from nearly 20 years ago.
This is the kind of expression "hate speech" laws go after—wasting valuable state resources, so needed to combat serious societal problems, and punishing innocent people for peacefully sharing their views in the public square. And the society-wide silencing effect of this kind of law is enormous. Even if prosecution ends in acquittal, the toll inflicted by police prosecution is simply too much to risk. Most people will make the calculation that it is safer to stay silent, rather than risk running afoul of the speech police.
A glance across the globe reveals that censorship is often the tool of choice for governments facing problems—it's easier for those in power to seek to silence and quell dissent than to deal with the root causes of problems plaguing their societies. With these threats mounting all around us, now is the time to vigilantly defend the basic human right to free speech.