‘Law must protect free speech’, top churchman says

The Christian church must be at the “forefront” of promoting free speech, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has said in response to the acquittal of a pastor charged for criticising Islam.

Dr Norman Hamilton, Convener of the Church’s Council for Church in Society, said that “one of the marks of a healthy democracy” is the “liberty to express strongly held beliefs” in public.

But he said: “At the Presbyterian Church in Ireland we are increasingly troubled that the state is seeking to limit freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of conscience in the interests of political correctness.”

Value free speech

Concluding in the Belfast Newsletter, Dr Hamilton remarked: “The law must properly value and protect a citizen’s right to freedom of speech and expression, while at the same time protecting each of us from unacceptable abuse.”

On Tuesday, Northern Ireland pastor James McConnell was found not guilty of using “grossly offensive” words during a sermon made available online.

Giving his decision, District Judge Liam McNally said the courts should be cautious of clamping down on speech – even if some found it “contemptible”.

Fundamental right

Secular columnist Fionola Meredith said that McConnell’s trial had ended with the correct verdict.

Writing in The Irish Times, she said the issues some had with McConnell’s remarks “gradually became a secondary consideration to something far more important: the need to protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression”.

She said: “The verdict, when it came, was in keeping with that shift in opinion.”

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