Ashers bakery defenders warn ‘dangerous’ NI hate crime proposals could crush civil liberties
• The Christian Institute says new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences a threat to free speech
• Legal opinion warns NI would be ‘more vulnerable’ to infringement of liberties
The campaign group that defended Ashers Baking Company in the so called ‘gay cake’ case has strongly criticised a review of Northern Ireland’s hate crime laws by County Court Judge Desmond Marrinan.
The Christian Institute warns that proposals to extend the law pose a serious threat to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and religious liberty.
Citing the “huge controversy” over similar hate crime proposals in Scotland, the group says legislating for vague hate crime laws in Northern Ireland will be met with a huge backlash from the public.
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at the Institute, commented:
“Given the huge controversy over the Hate Crime Bill in Scotland, you’d have thought Judge Marrinan would have been cautious with his recommendations. Unfortunately, he appears to have learnt nothing from Holyrood’s experience.
“The NI review makes many of the same dangerous recommendations that have sparked such outrage across the water. In particular, proposed new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences go even further than the proposals being debated in the Scottish Parliament.
“If these proposals are adopted by the Northern Ireland Executive they can expect a huge backlash from the public and criticism from the legal experts and police officers who would be tasked with implementing any new laws.
“Existing legislation in Northern Ireland is already too broad – enough to prompt criticism from Ivan Hare QC, a leading human rights expert, about the risks it poses to free speech. Adding vague new hate laws into the mix will make the situation worse.”
The 900 page review of NI hate crime laws by Judge Marrinan, published this week, makes a number of recommendations including new offences on ‘stirring up hatred’ covering race, religion, political belief, sexuality, gender identity and disability.
The offences are similar to those proposed in Part 2 of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, criticised by numerous professional organisations including the law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and the Faculty of Advocates.
The Christian Institute notes that the proposed NI ‘stirring up’ offences:
• cover behaviour deemed ‘likely’ to stir up hatred, rather than requiring criminal ‘intent’ – a lower threshold on contentious issues like sexual orientation and religion than anywhere else in the UK;
• cover ‘transgender identity’, a topic that is subject to heated debate in society at large;
• include no specific free speech clauses, unlike similar legislation in Scotland and England and Wales;
• include no ‘dwelling defence’ protecting words spoken in the privacy of the home;
• include a vague provision on ‘arousing fear’;
Mr Calvert added:
“The content of these proposals suggests a heedless approach towards civil liberties. The review even says that no specific protection for free speech is required in new stirring up offences and argues that the new laws should extend to what people say in the privacy of their homes.
“This is particularly worrying when you consider what the new offences will cover – discussion of hot button issues like religion, same-sex marriage and transgender identity. Decent, law-abiding citizens could be caught by these offences for voicing unorthodox or controversial views.
“Journalists, writers and others could also find themselves in hot water if they choose to cover, or express, views that are regarded as politically unacceptable by ‘woke’ activists on social media. The threat these proposals pose to vital liberties cannot be overstated.”
Earlier this year, a prominent QC issued a hard-hitting warning over the review of hate crime laws in Northern Ireland, when they were out for public consultation.
In a detailed legal opinion, free speech and human rights specialist Ivan Hare argued that, in the absence of key freedom of expression provisions, the plans will leave free speech in NI “more vulnerable” to infringement.
The QC warned that there is: “…clear potential 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”.
He added: “Such a chilling effect is particularly likely where the penalty is criminal and may include imprisonment”.
Ivan Hare’s legal opinion can be accessed in full here.
Notes to Editors:
The Christian Institute is a non-denominational registered charity, which seeks to promote the Christian faith in the UK.
It was founded in 1991 by Christian church leaders and professionals and it currently campaigns on a range of issues including marriage and the family, child protection, pro-life concerns, drugs, religious liberty and education, as well as Christianity and the constitution.