A leading UK barrister has warned that the proposed expansion of hate crime law in Northern Ireland is a severe threat to free speech.
Thomas Leonard Ross QC said the plans could result in people being taken to court for disagreeing with same-sex marriage.
The hate crime review has been met with strong opposition, with individuals and organisations expressing concerns about the implications for free speech and religious liberty.
Free speech protections
Free speech on the issue of same-sex marriage is currently explicitly protected in Northern Ireland law under the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.
It says: “Any discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage is not to be taken of itself to be – (A) threatening, abusive or insulting or (B) intended to stir up hatred or arouse fear.”
However, the review into hate crime law in Northern Ireland led by Judge Desmond Marrinan is considering scrapping this clause.
Mr Ross, who is among many voicing opposition to similar hate crime proposals in Scotland, said this could mean dissenting views become criminalised.
He said: “It does seem that the clear purpose of the amendment is to expose people who criticise ‘same-sex’ marriage to prosecution.
“The withdrawal of the defence would not automatically turn such discussion into an offence. But it’d certainly give the prosecution authority the green light to have a crack at obtaining a conviction for it.”
Mr Ross also noted that “the NI consultation paper runs to 310 pages”, and pointed out that the issue is “so complicated” that people will self-censor, as “which citizen will run the risk of a conviction?”
He said people will instead “simply avoid any debate of such difficult issues”.
The barrister added that “legitimate areas which require further discussion” – such as transgenderism – are at risk of being stifled.
Individuals wary of prosecution might feel unable to challenge ‘special interest groups’ that make claims such as “there is no such thing as male and female”.
Last month, a prominent free speech and human rights lawyer issued a hard-hitting warning over proposals to change hate crime laws in the Province.
In a detailed legal opinion for The Christian Institute, Ivan Hare QC attacked the proposals which could see hate crime laws extended to those who express disagreement on issues like same-sex marriage or transgenderism.
He argued that, especially in the absence of key freedom of expression provisions like those in England and Wales, the plans will leave free speech in Northern Ireland “more vulnerable” to infringement.
Mr Hare warned that there was “clear potential” in the plans “to infringe the right to freedom of expression” and “a very real risk that robust and uninhibited discussion of matters of great public importance will suffer a chilling effect”.