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Law should not gag free speech

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 23/06/2015

Pastor James McConnell senior pastor from Whitewell Tabernacle addressing the thousands of people who attended a rally at the Odyssey.
Pastor James McConnell senior pastor from Whitewell Tabernacle addressing the thousands of people who attended a rally at the Odyssey.

To the lay person the prosecution of Pastor James McConnell for his controversial remarks about Islam is a curious affair. He is accused under the Communications Act 2003 of sending or causing to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that was grossly offensive.

This has more than a hint of a catch-all piece of legislation which could be used to test the waters in court if indeed Pastor McConnell's comments, made during a sermon at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast and then streamed on the internet, could be interpreted as a hate crime lite.

This newspaper has already asked the DPP for greater transparency in its decision-making and certainly other clergy will be watching this case with more than a passing interest.

While, quite rightly, clergy are wary of keeping within the law when preaching to their congregations, this prosecution adds a new dimension to their concerns. Many churches now use the internet to keep in contact with the elderly, the housebound, the ill and those who have no means of getting to church.

Some say that they may now stop streaming their sermons in case words or phrases are misinterpreted or misunderstood or taken out of context. Quite simply, it would seem, for some clergy the word of God will be confined to their own churches.

There is a feeling among those of deep Christian faith that their beliefs are now under attack more than for many centuries. The Ashers 'gay cake' prosecution which led to the bakery firm being found guilty of discrimination grated with many Christians who felt that the law was in direct conflict with the ability of a person to act according to their religious beliefs.

This case is about speech rather than actions. Faiths, even denominations of the same faith, are often in conflict with each other, with each trying to denounce the other as somewhat lesser or somehow flawed.

We may not like what someone of another denomination or faith says about our own religion, but, if we really believe in freedom of speech, we should defend their right to hold those views and to articulate them.

That is not support for hate-mongering, but rather a defence of robust argument and opinion. The law should prevent incitement but not become a gag on legitimate comment.

Belfast Telegraph

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