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Triply good news about free speech in Northern Ireland

Why “triply”?

– This:

Pastor who said Islam was ‘doctrine spawned in hell’ is cleared by court

A born-again Christian pastor who denounced Islam as “heathen”, “satanic” and a “doctrine spawned in hell” has been cleared after a three-day trial in a verdict that upheld the right to offend under the principle of freedom of expression.

– this:

The National Secular Society said the verdict was a “welcome reassertion of the fundamental right to freedom of expression”.
Campaigns manager Stephen Evans said the society strongly disagreed with the tone and content of McConnell’s comments, but added: “At a time when freedom of speech is being curtailed and put at risk in any number of ways, this is a much needed statement from the judge that free speech will be defended and that Islam is not off-limits.”

– and this:

An Islamic academic spoke in support of McConnell outside the court on the grounds of freedom of expression. Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute, said: “Against the flaming backdrop of torched Christian churches, bloody executions and massacres of faith minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, it is … a matter of utmost concern that, in this country, we discharge our common duty steadfastly to defend the freedom of citizens to discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs – restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.

“Moreover, in a free and democratic society we enter into severe peril when we start to confuse what we perhaps ought or ought not to say, with what in law we are allowed to, or not allowed to say.”

20 comments to Triply good news about free speech in Northern Ireland

  • llamas







    Maybe there’s hope after all. But I see a worm in the apple, namely . . . .

    ‘restricting only speech which incites to physical violence against others.’

    This can be read many ways, including

    ‘restricting only speech which incites crazed, irrational followers of a 7th century death cult to commit physical violence against the speaker’.

    Since Islamists have already shown that they consider that anything anyone says or does about Islam is legitimate grounds for extreme violence, this is a pretty weak defence of free speech. People’s speech will still be suppressed on the grounds that what they say upsets people who may become violent, when the correct response should be to go and suppress the violence, not the speech. But in the UK, it’s better than nothing.



  • Alsadius

    Wait, they got a fiery Christian preacher, a Muslim professor, and a group of organized atheists to agree on something? Egads. It’s a Festivus miracle!

  • Alisa

    Llamas has a point, but still, this was not said by the judge, and even not by a jurist at all, so I choose to remain hopeful. It would be gratifyingly ironic if the current effort by Islamists to push the West (and indeed the world) towards submission will result not only in the rejection of the latter, but also in the revival of traditional Western principles such as freedom of expression.

  • Alisa

    Alsadius: 😀

  • Clovis Sangrail

    Well, it’s going on my notice board.

  • Mr Ed

    The allegations that the Pastor faced are described by the BBC:

    Mr McConnell had denied two charges – improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network.

    So, making two charges out of one action, if you regard broadcasting the sermon as a single action. Void for duplicity would have been a good start for the judge. And these charges were presumably brought as they were more likely to result in a conviction than any charge based on simply speaking ‘to the air’ as opposed to ‘on air’. So the PTB have in recent legislation, found a tool for going after ‘speech’ that fits the statute if it is likely to be spread electronically, which allows for a concentration of resources.

    The charges were brought in under Section 127 (1) (a) and (b) the Communications Act 2003:

    127Improper use of public electronic communications network

    (1)A person is guilty of an offence if he—

    (a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or

    (b)causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

    (2)A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—

    (a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,

    (b)causes such a message to be sent; or

    (c)persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.

    (3)A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.

    (4)Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to anything done in the course of providing a programme service (within the meaning of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (c. 42)).

    Oh, look, the TV networks can broadcast what they like under this section as a ‘programme service‘.

    So one’s freedom is contingent on not communicating electronically what is ‘grossly‘ offensive, rather than simply ‘offensive’. The judge found the remarks ‘offensive‘ and on that factual finding, acquitted. I do not see in what I have read of the spoken judgment any indication that the words were ‘objectively offensive’ to a man on the Newtownards Omnibus. After all, to a devout Christian ‘heathen’ is pretty much anyone not recognisably Christian. Some might include the People of the Book as ‘non-heathens’, others might regard those outside their denomination as ‘heathen’.

    When the Northern Irish Police Service and the Public Prosecutor can devote time and resources to bringing charges in cases like this, it might be regarded as a good thing that they are not too busy not getting assassinated anymore, but a bad thing for freedom of the individual.

  • Pat

    One Muslim, and a cleric at that, appears to have got the point about freedom of speech! Wow!
    All hail Muhammad Al Husseini.
    All we need to do about Muslims is to learn to tell the good ones from the bad ones.

  • Mr Ed

    It occured to me after my previous post that the essence of the alleged offence could not have been made out had that godly Pastor simply preached in a town square, as he was not using a public telecommunications network. However, had a concerned secularist recorded the sermon, let’s say without permission, then, indignant at the contents, sent the recording to a friend over the internet, the secularist and only the secularist would have been the one to have been within scope (though not on the facts) for prosecution. Had the secularist added some particularly inflammatory wording, in a private message to his friend, disparaging the Pastor, then our imaginary secularist might have crissed the line into commiting an offence.

    Yet were he a ‘broadcaster’, doing the same and broadcasting the sermon as a ‘programme service’, and adding the same of his own inflammatory remarks, he would have a statutory defence to the charges and an acquital would be legally inevitable.

  • Phil B

    When I read the headline, I thought that the IRA had finally started to decommission their baseball bats.

    One lives in hope …

  • I disagree. It should never have gone to trial in the first place. That would have been a true victory whereas this is merely an averted defeat.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    NickM, I disagree with your disagreement. Sure, in an ideal world, or even the freer UK of twenty years ago, there would never have been any question of a trial, and that was a better place to be in. But in our timeline much freedom is lost by the chilling effect of “the quiet word” from an oh-so understanding policeman; the idea being that the repeated use of such threats will gradually “boil the frog”.

    In these circumstances it is good news that the state was forced to show its hand, and great news that the hand turned out to be weak.

    Even if the verdict had gone the other way, it would still have been better than the unchallenged quiet erosion of our rights. The imprisonment of an old man for saying things that clearly related to the belief system of Islam, not to Muslims, would probably have woken people up. I think that the pastor understood this. Elsewhere in the article he is quoted as saying, “If the judge imposes a fine, then I won’t be paying it and I don’t want anybody else to pay it on my behalf either. It’s a matter of principle.”

  • Paul Marks

    This goes back to a great difference between Ulster culture and Scottish culture – and English culture.

    Under Queen Anne in the very early 1700s (1712 I think)the Church of Scotland was put under state supervision – no more local people hiring any preacher they wanted to.

    But the Dissenters in Ireland (mostly in Ulster) rejected that – and insisted on the right of local people to hire anyone they wanted to.

    Thus the “Penal Laws” were applied to the Protestants of Ireland (the ones that were not “Church of Ireland” – i.e. Anglicans) as well as Roman Catholics.

    This is forgotten today – but it was one of the factors that led to an anti government attitude among the “Ulster Scots” or “Scots Irish” – very different to the Scots in Ireland.

    In the American War of Independence it was the Scots Irish (not the Scots from Scotland) who were the main fighting men of the war on the American side.

    Indeed they (and those who assimilate into their culture – for they are big assimilators, as likely to marry Indians as kill them) have been the main fighting men of all the wars of America (both sides in the Civil War).

    They may not be the people at the top – or the people in the supply office. But if one looks at the people actually doing the KILLING – it is always them. They earn the medals (when they bother to collect them)and they fill the graves.

    Yes – they are the people “liberal” Americans love to hate, they are the “Rednecks”, although some of them are very quiet (think of Audie Murphy) they will not be silenced – they would die first.

    In some ways the “liberal” stereotype of such people is correct – for example they do indeed have a problem with formal education (universities and so on) – and thus are unlikely to be in any position that requires formal paper qualifications.

    However, they are not stupid – indeed the IQ levels of this ethnic (and cultural) group in the United States are oddly high (rather higher than the general population).

    This can lead to problems.

    There can be a difficulty for a “liberal” American in giving orders to someone who may actually be more intelligent than they are, and may have a “bad attitude” (i.e. will not keep silent if they think the order is wrong),

    Especially as such people tend to be physically stronger than “liberal” Americans. And mentally prepared to kill – not give an order to someone else to kill, but kill with their own hands.

    So a increasingly bureaucratic society where paper qualifications are ever more important – against an ethnic-cultural group that do not respect paper qualifications.

    A “liberal” culture that assumes that people who do not have qualifications are “stupid” or “ignorant” – against people who are often neither.

    And a “liberal” culture (in both the United States and the United Kingdom) that insists that people MUST NOT DISSENT from “liberalism” – against people who will not back down, especially if threatened.

    And a “liberal” culture that is based on ordering death but not doing it personally – against people who kill with their own hands. And tend to be physically stronger than “liberals”.

    An interesting conflict.

    Oh by the way – to those chanting “slave owning Confederates”.

    Perhaps the heart of this “Red Neck” culture (Country Music, Bristol Tennessee, and all)is Eastern Tennessee (First and Second Congressional Districts and parts of the Third) – exactly the area that was AGAINST the Confederacy in the Civil War and has been Republican ever since.

  • Paul Marks

    Still – to get back to the specific narrow point.

    Yes the British “hate speech” laws violate Freedom of Speech.

    A preacher (or anyone else) should be allowed to express their opinions – no matter how “hateful” them may be.

    So the outcome of this case is indeed is indeed GOOD NEWS.

    But it an outrage the case was brought in the first place.

    Just as the case against the Christian bakers was an outrage.

    John Stewart Mill was WRONG – ordinary commercial dealings are not under a “different principle” they are under the same principle of liberty.

    The freedom of a grocer or baker is not less important than the freedom of an “intellectual” – and it is not just a matter of economics (economic freedom is a moral matter).

    Freedom of Association must include the freedom to NOT associate – and to not associate in the ordinary business of life.

    As for “a business is open to the public – so it is subject to public regulation”.

    That is the principle of the Emperor Diocletian.

    People who use force to apply that principle should be tarred and feathered.

    Force should be met with force.

  • Paul,
    I don’t understand a lot of your first comment just prior to this and am very vague as to how it relates to the matter at hand but I would amplify a later point you made. Inevitably a preacher (of whatever stripe) not only should be allowed to say “hateful things”* but has to. Freedom of speech is, if it is worth the dust of the valance, is the right to offend. Without the right to offend being not just intrinsic in a just law** but in the self the person is a “hollow man” – a mere cipher. The same applies to all of us as you imply with the idea of churches choosing their own preacher. In a very real sense we all choose our own preacher – or should do.

    *Sounds like the title of a rejected Stephen King novel.
    **By which I mean it shouldn’t be a matter of law at all.

  • As to the “non-gay” bakers… OK, I will take on a job (or not) for various reasons. The most common reason not to is that it is unrealistic. The second most common is I can’t do it (though probs I can point the client in the direction of folks who can – that goes vice-versa BTW). There are of course others such as pressure of time, the genuine belief I will have an aggro getting paid or grumbling over cost. (nobody pays me – in a sense – for the time – I try to do stuff as quick as poss. I get grief sometimes for that – so that’s fifty quid but you were only here for 20 minutes*). I can’t think of an occasion I haven’t set-up a network or dragged it back from Hell where the sexuality of the client was an issue. And let’s be honest here! I spend a lot of time in the classical receptive embuggeration pose crawling around through dust bunnies and cables. Frankly I don’t care**.

    Of course freedom of association is exactly the same thing as freedom of having nothing to do with some person or entity. Antics over this have though been exploited to make “political” points one way or another which seem to me to be dismal. You have to be able in anything like a free market to deal with others as you choose. Of course they have the reciprocal right of choosing (for whatever reason) not to do business with me.

    As to “The Gay Bakers”***… Well, I’d regard them as silly but that shouldn’t be against the law. There is some technicality here about advertised pricing which I am not sure of. Having said that my current Casio was sold to me for GBP21 rather than GBP35.

    And if anyone thinks I am going off on a tangent there then I am but not as much as you might imagine.

    * Labour theory of value. If I can fix it quick isn’t that for the best? For everyone.
    ** As long as payment is on the nail and without quibbles. I am fair and honest. Not just because that is morally right but because it is good business. Doing good by doing right.
    ***Sounds like the “World’s Worst Boyband”. There’s a joke there about creaming your pastry ring but I shall not go there. Especially considering that the BBC has decided baking is the “New Sex”.

  • Snorri Godhi


    they got a fiery Christian preacher, a Muslim professor, and a group of organized atheists to agree on something? Egads. It’s a Festivus miracle!

    It all depends on what they agree about.


    Oh by the way – to those chanting “slave owning Confederates”.
    Perhaps the heart of this “Red Neck” culture (Country Music, Bristol Tennessee, and all)is Eastern Tennessee (First and Second Congressional Districts and parts of the Third) – exactly the area that was AGAINST the Confederacy in the Civil War and has been Republican ever since.

    A stronger argument against the charge of slave ownership, could be that the vast majority of Whites in the Confederacy were not slave owners. Also, the Scots Irish, rednecks being poor almost by definition, were presumably under-represented within the slave-owning minority.

  • Stonyground

    The membership of the National Secular Society are mostly atheists but you do not have to be an atheist to join or to be a secularist. All minority religions benefit from secularism which is basically the idea that the state should not be involved in religious matters and that all citizens should have equal rights regardless of their religious beliefs or lack of them. I had to laugh at Baroness Warsi wibbling on about the evils of secularism when, had it not been for the work of the NSS, she would not have been allowed anywhere near the corridors of power.

  • Paul Marks

    Nick – hardly complicated.

    The preacher is in the “chaotic” (or free – depending on one’s point of view) tradition of Ulster. Not the controlled (post 1712) tradition of the Scottish Church – or the English Church for that matter.

    Who do you think the “Rednecks”(the people prepared to die, and to kill, for things such as the First Amendment) are?

    They are the “Scots Irish” – the Ulsterman in the United States. And those people who got influenced by their culture – this point is very important because many settlers to the United States got assimilated into this culture(although they came from many parts of the world).

    They are not English utilitarians such a Jeremy Bentham or Scots utilitarians such as James Mill or John Stuart Mill.

    Such people, like Thomas Hobbes, believe nothing-is-worth-dying-for.

    They are sheep. And government finds it easy to dominate such people – and, anyway, they all want nice government “intellectual” jobs.

    “Rednecks” for all their, very real, faults – are not sheep.

    They are prepared to die (and to kill) for freedom.

    Such people may be quiet (think of James Stewart or Audie Murphy) but they mean it. On such people freedom, not just their own freedom but the freedom of everyone else, depends.

    Do you understand now?

    The question is not “should the preacher be allowed to give his opinions in his own Church?”

    A lot of people would say “yes” to that.

    The real question is as follows……

    “Are you prepared to kill someone who tries to use force to prevent this man speaking freely in his own Church?”

    That is a rather harder question.

    Anyone can be in favour of Freedom of Speech from the comfort of their armchair.

  • Paul Marks

    No Snorri – my point was that Eastern Tennessee (for the most part) fought AGAINST the Confederacy (not that they were under represented in it – they actively took up their rifles against it). Although, of course, “Rednecks” did most of the killing on both sides (someone from this culture tends to take war seriously – war is about killing people, not hiding behind some desk till the fighting is over).

    They have (in the First and Second Districts) been voting Republican for 150 years – yet the “liberals” appear not to have noticed and talk about Richard Nixon and so on (NOT the sort of Republican that these Districts send to Washington).

    As for taking up arms.

    Battle of Athens – Athens Tennessee (Third Congressional District) in the late 1940s.

    As for wealth.

    Senator Benton was a wealthy man – he came out against slavery before the war (that is why he lost his seat in the Senate – and he knew he would lose his seat if he spoke out).

    “I remember President Jackson [someone from a similar background by the way] I shot him once – a fine man!”

    Does that explain the matter to you?

    Shooting someone does not necessarily meant that you dislike them – or that they dislike you.

    It means that a point of principle is at stake and neither man will back down.

    They are not sheep.

    The English gentry and aristocracy (in the days when they were not so corrupted by “education”)used to understand these “Ulster-Scots” types fairly well.

    Marxists do not understand them at all.

    Because Marxists (such as Mr Obama) think in economic terms.

    And “Rednecks” do not care (really do not care) how much money someone has.

    They have many faults – but envy is not one of them.

    But they are not wildly impressed by riches either.

    What impresses them is whether or not you are prepared to “take the walk down the street”.

    The walk that two men take – but often only one comes back.

    Although if someone is truly weak and helpless they have nothing to fear from such people – on the contrary they will die to protect them.

    And there is no contradiction in this.

  • Sean McCartan

    Let’s hear it for the Ulster Scots. My three particular favourites being Theobald Wolfe Tone , Henry Joy McCracken and Robert Emmet.