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Pastor McConnell court victory means round one to free speech but the fight hasn't ended

As the dust settles on the debacle of the Pastor McConnell court case, Mick Hume writes that while many people may have disagreed with the firebrand preacher, he should never have been dragged before the courts in the first place

Published 13/01/2016

Pastor James McConnell leaves court in Belfast on January 5 after being found not guilty of making grossly offensive messages about Islam, which the firebrand evangelical preacher described as ‘heathen’, ‘Satanic’ and ‘spawned in Hell’
Pastor James McConnell leaves court in Belfast on January 5 after being found not guilty of making grossly offensive messages about Islam, which the firebrand evangelical preacher described as ‘heathen’, ‘Satanic’ and ‘spawned in Hell’
Pastor James McConnell speaks to the media
Pastor James McConnell (C) smiles as he leaves the magistrates court in Belfast on January 5, 2016 after being found not guilty of making 'grossly offensive' remarks about Islam. The judge said while he considered the remarks offensive, he did not consider them "grossly" offensive under the law

People of all faiths and (like me) none should rejoice that Belfast Pastor James McConnell has been cleared of the charge of making "grossly offensive" remarks about Islam in a sermon. It is, as the Evangelical Alliance of Northern Ireland said after the verdict, "a victory for common sense and freedom of speech".

But it is a qualified victory for free speech in a defensive battle that should never have had to be fought.

And it leaves the fortress gate open for further attempts to restrict that precious freedom.

Even after he had been found not guilty, police and prosecutors insisted that Pastor McConnell "had a case to answer". Yet it is they who should now be made to answer some hard questions.

Why should it be considered a crime, carrying a potential six-month prison sentence, for a preacher to express his or her religious beliefs?

Indeed, why should it ever be deemed a criminal offence for anybody simply to use words which somebody else finds offensive or even "grossly offensive"?

What could freedom of speech really mean if we were only free to express views which others agree with or find unobjectionable? What harm can an opinion do, anyway?

This dangerous case began back in May 2014 when 78-year Pastor McConnell gave a sermon at Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in north Belfast expressing his belief that "Islam is heathen, Islam is Satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in Hell".

Not the sort of milksop Christianity that we over in Britain hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury, perhaps, but no more than the honest, heartfelt beliefs of an evangelical firebrand.

When the pastor's somewhat Old Testament views were broadcast via the newfangled internet, however, the Police Service of Northern Ireland - whick, Lord knows, can have nothing better to do in Belfast - was prompted to investigate.

A year later, after Pastor McConnell had refused to apologise or accept a police caution, it charged him with "causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communication network". Which sounded like a high-tech excuse for launching an old-fashioned witch-hunt against those whose views you would silence.

The case finally came before court last month.

Announcing his verdict this week, Judge Liam McNally found that the pastor's words were indeed offensive, but did not quite meet the higher legal threshold of "grossly offensive". The judge said, in words we can all surely endorse, that "it is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances".

However, Judge McNally did not leave it there. Instead, he gave the pastor a little sermon of his own from the pulpit of the bench. The judge told McConnell that his passion whilst preaching had "caused him to have the run of himself" and, according to reports, "advised him to consider the impact of his words in future".

In other words, the pastor's views might not quite have been illegal but they were too offensive to be permitted free rein. And while the court could not lock him up this time, it strongly advised him to shut up anyway.

This judgment neatly sums up the twin perils facing free speech in UK today. First there is the growing threat of formal legal action by the State to police offensive speech online, in public and even in private.

The proliferation of laws from the 2003 Communications Act (under which McConnell was charged) to the 2012 Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act (under which a Rangers fans was last year jailed for singing an offensive song in a Glasgow street) mean that more people are now being arrested and imprisoned for what they think and say than at any time since the 18th century.

Then there is the informal censorship enforced by our creeping culture of conformism, whose battle cry is: "You Can't Say That!"

This is the more insidious threat to free speech, symbolised by the judge's warning to the innocent pastor not to repeat his sermon about "Satanic" Islam.

It is visible almost daily now in the witch-hunts pursued by online mobs of tweeters and web petitioners who seek not just to criticise, but to silence opinions which are not to their taste.

In a striking illustration of this culture of conformism, the BBC news online report of Pastor McConnell's acquittal dared not even repeat what he had said about Islam. Instead, it made mysterious references to "the remarks" and "the words upon which the charges were based" that must have left many readers bewildered.

It is as if the words "Islam is Satanic" have some evil magic powers to cast a spell and so must be suppressed in the way that Harry Potter's pals were afraid to utter the name of the dark lord Voldemort.

Most dangerously, the crusade against offensive speech blurs the line between words and deeds. Words might be weapons in a debate or even a slanging match, but however pointed, words are not knives, and however blunt, they are not baseball bats. No matter how loaded they might be, words are not guns.

Words can hurt feelings, but the expression of an argument or an opinion, however aggressive or offensive it might seem, should never be treated as if it were a physical assault or a criminal offence.

Emerging from his courtroom ordeal, Pastor McConnell stood by the views expressed in his sermon and said his only regret was the response of those in the Muslim community who thought he was "out to hurt them". In fact, he explained: "I wouldn't hurt a hair on their head. But what I am against is their theology and what they believe in."

This reminded me of the words of one of America's Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson, who almost 250 years ago defined the proper liberal response to keeping the law out of religious disputes and insults, declaring that: "It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

That outlook led to the passage of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects free speech and ensures that no American evangelical or Islamist could be dragged before the courts for insulting the other's beliefs.

How we could do with such an open-minded attitude today at a time when we are remembering the bloody assault on free speech in the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists.

Instead, we are faced with the official outlook of pinched intolerance summed up by the Public Prosecution Service's statement after Pastor McConnell's acquittal.

It declared: "The decision on whether the comment was offensive or grossly offensive was not only finely balanced but one for the court and the court alone to take."

The truth is that issues of tolerance, free speech and the right to be offensive are far too important to us all to be left in the hands of judges, prosecutors and the thought-police.

Belfast Telegraph

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