Editorial: Ireland’s hate speech laws aren’t up to scratch

One of the talking points we see brought up again and again by extremists is their right to free speech. For them, this allows them to say whatever they want about whoever they want. Any consequences which affect them as a result of their statements are, it is generally argued, an attack on free speech.

When people like Milo Yiannopoulos are deplatformed they are quick to cry out that their free speech is under attack. At one event he even called on people “to fight for free speech in the face of overwhelming odds”. These overwhelming odds he refers to are victims of his hate mongering and racism.

The same arguments are used here by our own internet-savvy extremists. When deplatformed by YouTube they rant about the company “breaching” their right to free speech. These same people declare that Ireland is being invaded by migrants and that Islam poses an existential threat to the country. And added to this is their hatred for the LGBTQI+ community.

Yet like in the case of Yiannopoulos, when they face the consequences of their actions they fall back on a flawed interpretation of their inherent right to free speech. It’s flawed in the sense that with rights are concomitant duties. And it’s the latter of which they choose to ignore. These duties are well understood — and an old topic — in the history of philosophy. But it’s inconvenient so they cast them aside.

Take our own right to free speech. Yes, it is guaranteed by the constitution. Specifically, Article 40 declares that the state guarantees:


The right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions.

This is the section of the constitution that our own extremists have latched on to. For them it’s a shield behind which they can say the most horrendous things about some of the most vulnerable people in society. What they choose to ignore in the constitution, however, is the very next paragraph.

It argues that although the state will do all it can to ensure “that organs of public opinion, such as the radio, the press, the cinema” have their right to freedom of expression preserved, there are limits. It’s clearly written that one’s right to freedom of expression:


shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.

The right to freedom of expression or free speech is limited by the duty not to cause harm. However, the duties are rarely enforced. And this is what makes Ireland’s hate speech laws ineffective and in need of updating. Simply put, they aren’t up to scratch.

According to a report published by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) in June, Ireland is suffering from:


an undercurrent of low-level racist violence which is not adequately recorded or addressed.

Added to this are Ireland’s ineffectual laws against hate speech. The ECRI pointed out that:


There continue to be no provisions in Irish criminal law defining common offences of a racist or homo/transphobic nature as specific offences, nor any specific or statutory provision for racist or other hate motivation to be considered as an aggravating circumstance for all criminal offences.

In fact, there have only been five hate speech convictions in the last 19 years. And this is despite that fact “hate speech [in Ireland] involving verbal abuse in public places is quite common”.

Ireland’s far right extremists have been relying on a flawed and ignorant interpretation of the constitution. And they have gotten away with it because the laws simply aren’t up to the task of dealing with them. When a member of the far right is able to give a Nazi salute in broad daylight with no legal consequences, something is very wrong.

That’s why we need new laws on hate speech. Because rights without duties are meaningless. Freedom of speech has consequences that nobody should be immune from. But there are some who thus far have escaped legal consequences. And this is a gift to these extremists in our midst.

Featured image via Flickr – Newtown Graffiti

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