A Northern Ireland pastor has today been found not guilty of using “grossly offensive” words during a sermon made available online.
Pastor James McConnell was on trial for comments he made about Islam. Speaking today, he made clear that he was standing against Islam as a belief, rather than individual Muslims.
Giving his decision, District Judge Liam McNally said the courts should be cautious of clamping down on speech – even if some found it “contemptible”.
The National Secular Society said that while it ‘strongly disagreed’ with McConnell’s words, the ruling was a “welcome reassertion of the fundamental right to freedom of expression”.
McConnell was being prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act for saying in a sermon: “Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell”.
Speaking after the result, McConnell said that he loved Muslims, but he was against “their theology and their beliefs”.
District Judge Liam McNally said courts need to be “very careful” not to criminalise speech which some may find offensive.
“It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.
“Accordingly I find Pastor McConnell not guilty”, he added.
Responding to the ruling, the National Secular Society said the decision was particularly welcome at a time when free speech is at risk.
Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has faced criticism for taking the issue to trial, but in a statement said the judgement showed the issue was “finely balanced”.
“The decision to bring this prosecution was entirely consistent with the duty of the PPS to put before the court those cases in which it is considered there is a reasonable prospect of a conviction”, it added.