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Pastor's acquittal over anti-Islam remarks a victory for free speech

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 06/01/2016

Pastor James McConnell outside Belfast Magistrates Court after he was cleared by a judge over remarks that he made from the pulpit in which he said that Islam was
Pastor James McConnell outside Belfast Magistrates Court after he was cleared by a judge over remarks that he made from the pulpit in which he said that Islam was "satanic and heathen"

The acquittal of Pastor James McConnell of charges linked to anti-Islamic comments he made during an internet-broadcast sermon is not just a victory for the 78-year-old cleric but, even more importantly, a triumph for the concept of free speech.

This was a court case which in the steadfast opinion of this newspaper from the outset should never have been brought. While accepting that the remarks made by Pastor McConnell were very robust and even perhaps ill-couched, we argued that he was entitled to hold those views provided he was sincere in his belief and that his intention was not to incite hatred.

The judge in the case came, essentially, to the same conclusion, finding that the remarks were offensive, but not grossly offensive, which was the threshold set by the law in this case.

His further judgment - "the courts need to be very careful not to criminalise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances" - was a commonsense finding and one which should be applauded by everyone who treasures the freedoms - especially the freedom of speech - which we all enjoy.

But it is a finding which comes at a cost. An elderly man has spent many months with this case hanging over him at a time, we believe, when his wife is also suffering a serious illness.

It may have seemed that he relished the fight to clear his name - and his resolute defence of his right to voice his opinion speaks volumes for his character - but his defence team has revealed that his health has suffered from the ordeal of the trial and the real possibility of ending up in jail.

It is notable that Pastor McConnell gained support from those who would not appear to be his natural allies, including a Catholic priest, a Muslim academic and a Marxist columnist.

The priest, Fr Patrick McCafferty, first met Pastor McConnell because he was dismayed by remarks made by him, but decided that debate on their theological differences was the proper way to settle their argument. As a result, they became friends.

And Muslim academic, Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, further emphasised that point by arguing that in these times, when religious extremism threatens world safety, it is vital that the public can engage in a rational debate on theological teachings and how clerics preach or give witness to their beliefs.

This newspaper welcomes the judgment, which values the right to freedom of expression. It is a freedom on which all sections of the media depend for their very existence and it is a freedom which liberates every one of us, no matter how much we may disagree with the views of others.

Had these charges stuck, we would be facing an assault on our beliefs, no matter how sincerely held they are.

Belfast Telegraph

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