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What we can all learn from outcome of McConnell case

By Alf McCreary

Published 09/01/2016

In the spotlight: Pastor McConnell was cleared in the courts over remarks he made about Islam
In the spotlight: Pastor McConnell was cleared in the courts over remarks he made about Islam

So much has been said about the Pastor McConnell court case that a well-qualified writer could produce a useful guide-book for lawyers and people in the public eye, as well as journalists

However, there are a few salient points worth considering after the furore has died down. This case centred on some of Pastor McConnell's outspoken remarks about Islam, but the issue transcended individual personalities and became an important test-case for the freedom of speech and of conscience.

Much credit is due to the wisdom of District Judge Liam McNally who heard the case. He deftly steered through the options facing him, and produced a just verdict that comforted the pastor and his supporters.

In doing so he also cut off the road to martyrdom. He found the pastor not guilty, judging that his remarks did not meet "the high threshold of being grossly offensive".

However, he also noted, significantly, that the pastor's remarks had been offensive, though not grossly so. This in turn raises the question as to what is "offensive" or "grossly offensive", and this is surely a matter of subjective judgment.

The judge's ruling showed uncommon common sense, and that should be the end of the matter. Whether or not you think that the PPS was most unwise to proceed with the prosecution - and many people think it was - the case raised many important points.

Surprisingly, there was no public reaction from the Methodists or Anglicans on such an important matter, but the Presbyterians issued a deeply thoughtful statement through the convenor of its Council for Church in Society.

The Very Rev. Dr Norman Hamilton, a former Moderator, noted: "The right to express a point of view in a public setting, or in the public square, including the liberty to express strongly-held beliefs, is one of the hallmarks of a healthy democracy."

In a particularly telling passage Dr Hamilton noted that the Presbyterian Church "is 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".

He said: "It is essential that the Christian Church and all Christian people are at the forefront of promoting such freedoms for the benefit of every citizen, as far as they are consistent with the building of a genuinely free and pluralist society."

How right he is.

In diplomatic language, Dr Hamilton also warned of the need for "self-imposed parameters that support important freedoms such as the rights of free speech and free assembly". The important words here are "self-imposed". None of us can say in public just whatever comes into our heads, though our politicians seem to do this far too often.

Meanwhile, Peter Lynas, the national director of the Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland, and himself a former barrister, rightly underlined that "it is vital that the State does not stray into the censorship of Church sermons or unwittingly create a right not to be offended".

However, he made it clear that "the Church must steward its freedom of speech responsibly so as to present Jesus in a gracious and appealing way to everyone".

There is a school of thought which believes that being offensive is part of free speech, which it can be, but others believe equally strongly that you can make your point most effectively indeed without causing offence - which District Judge McNally did so sensibly in his landmark judgment this week.

We could all learn from that.

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