My speech from last night’s ‘Malicious Communications’ debate

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Speaking in the Seanad during Second Stage of the Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015.
This is a Bill presented by Labour Senator Lorraine Higgins.

While I respect the sentiments which have motivated the Bill, I must, with regret, oppose it because we do not have a first amendment in Ireland. If we did, I would be a first amendment hawk. Free speech is the cornerstone of any democratic society. Any law which has within it the potential to undermine free speech, a law which, when crafted by well-meaning people like Senator Higgins, will be implemented in future generations by people who may be less well-meaning, has within it the ability to undermine many of the central freedoms which keep our democracy safe.

The Bill is motivated by a desire to prevent personal harm inflicted by malicious people through the medium of the Internet, specifically things like revenge porn and exhortations to commit suicide. Such people should be dealt with in specific legislation. There should be a comprehensive Bill and an attempt to deal with issues relating to suicide. The way to deal with revenge porn is to pass legislation on the ownership of images which may have been exchanged between two people to prevent them being widely disseminated. The problem with the Bill is section 4 (2), which states: “For the purposes of this section an electronic communication shall be considered malicious where it intentionally or recklessly causes alarm, distress or harm to the other.” It is the nature of a democracy that it is full of people who, every now and then, need to be harmed.

I am not referring to the poor children and teenagers who have been maliciously harmed, but that should be dealt with in specific legislation. We should not give to Government the broad stroke to use the excuse of prevention of harm to defend the powerful and influential. As Hume recently said, “The right to free speech never entails a right to be taken seriously” and as Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all it is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. Those rights would be gravely undermined if the Bill was passed.

The wonderful Maíria Cahill, who has done so much to cast light on a very shadowy and disreputable series of episodes that occurred in Ireland, used the medium of the Internet widely and caused – I will use the words of the Bill – quite a bit of alarm, distress and harm to people who deserved to be alarmed, distressed and harmed. She did so deliberately, but not maliciously. The Bill would have allowed people on the receiving end of what we believe are very valid criticisms to hide behind the legislation and protect themselves from the kind of criticism they deserved and the light which needed to be shone on their activities and deficiencies.

I can think of many other examples. An example we all lived through is the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. Most of us, Senator Higgins included, I am sure, were subjected to very substantial amounts of very personal abuse from people who called us baby killers, said we were anti-life and told us we would be toasted forever in the eternal fires of hell. Such comments are quite distressing and I imagine somebody with delicate sensibilities would take them to heart. Some very hurtful things were said to me. I am a doctor who deals with cancer patients and people went online and said I was anti-life and pro-death. What could be a greater personal and professional insult to me than that? Like Voltaire, I disagreed with what they said but I defend to the death their right to say it. That is the kind of society to which we must aspire.

With great respect, that is why this Bill has the potential to be very dangerous. It is part of a broad series of new ideas being developed in the new world which are attempts to roll back the individual freedoms which were so hard fought immediately after the dawn of the Enlightenment that rolled back many of the darknesses that had enveloped people for so long. A Jewish person might fervently believe that he or she has a right to live in Israel according to ethnic or religious beliefs, with which one may or may not agree. Some people have stated this belief, called Zionism, is a form of racism. I do not believe that, anymore than it is a form of racism to have Islamic republics dotted all over the Middle East. In an ideal world I would love to have pluralistic, multi-confessional and democratic republics throughout the Middle East where everybody could vote and would not vote according to ethnic or tribal lines, but that is not what we have. We have the current reality.

People who believe Zionism is a form of racism should be allowed to say it, even though it may be very deeply and personally offensive and hurtful to many Jewish people who see Zionism in a very different light. I have major problems with many of the practices of the Islamic theocracies in the Middle East. Should I be allowed to criticise them, even though very devout Muslims may find that hurtful?

I understand from where this came. Senator Higgins went through an awful experience which nobody deserves and I hope there is a legislative remedy. A legislative remedy that could be abused by people, who are less well meaning than the Minister, in years to come in an attempt to squelch dissent in this State should not be supported.

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