A review of hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland must not endanger free speech, a former member of the Stormont Assembly has warned.
Writing in the Belfast Telegraph, Nelson McCausland warned that the issue has not received adequate public scrutiny, given Northern Ireland’s complex political situation and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on everyday life.
The Department of Justice commissioned a review of the current law last June, and a public consultation on the issue closed in April.
Ashers Baking Co
McCausland said the review should not be rushed, “especially at a time when there is such an assault on free speech in our society”.
He continued: “We live in an increasingly litigious society, of which the Ashers Bakery saga is an obvious example, and bad legislation flowing from inadequate consultation would exacerbate the problem.
“Freedom of speech is too important and the current process is not the way to consult on a very complex issue and the process requires to be augmented to facilitate that wider public discourse.”
The former MLA added that the “need for caution has been highlighted by the situation in Scotland”.
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which is the product of the Scottish Government’s review of hate crime legislation, has been widely criticised for threatening free speech.
McCausland said that the lack of free speech protections for speaking about transgenderism “could well be used by activists to shut down the public debate” and warned that many activists already claim it is hate speech “to say that gender is a matter of biology”.
Suppressing free speech
Earlier this month, Christians and atheists warned that the Scottish Government’s legislation endangers free speech.
The Bill seeks to extend the law on ‘hate crime’ against particular groups, and if it passes, words or behaviour considered to be “threatening or abusive” and “likely” to stir up hatred would constitute an offence.
The Christian Institute’s Deputy Director for Communications Ciarán Kelly said: “It is not difficult to see how the broad language of the Bill might be used to suppress free speech.”
Chris Sloggett of The National Secular Society commented: “This vague law will undermine open debate, along with citizens’ confidence that they’ll be treated equally under the law and they won’t be prosecuted unfairly.”