DUBLIN — New laws aimed at curbing hate speech have sparked controversy in Ireland.
The updated legislation will create landmark laws to deal with hate crimes, make it an offense to deny or trivialize genocide and expand protections to include gender identity and disability.
Opponents of the Criminal Justice Bill have raised concerns the changes go too far and will stifle free speech.
However, defenders say Ireland’s current legislation has been outstripped by the internet and contains significant blind spots.
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, who first published the bill currently making its way through the country’s Parliament (Oireachtas), hit back at claims speech would be restricted.
Hate speech and freedom of speech are two separate things, with the former designed to shut people up and “make them afraid”.
“We are all horrified when we hear of homophobic, racist, and other hateful incidents in our country,” she said in October.
“While these repulsive acts of violence and abuse against innocent people have been extensively reported on, we know that some people go about their lives constantly in fear of abuse simply because of who they are.”
The new law will introduce specific legislation to tackle hate crimes, which considers intentional or reckless communication and behavior that is likely to incite violence or hatred, establishing penalties of up to five years in prison.
Victims of hate crimes are targeted due to prejudice against their age, ability, ethnicity, religion, nationality, sexual orientation or gender.
It will also make it much easier to secure convictions for hate crimes by allowing prosecutors to rely on the use of hostile slurs, gestures or symbols.
Critics fear the changes could lead to politically incorrect views being censored, such as those around trans rights.
Some public figures have waded into the debate with Donald Trump Jr calling the new law “insane” and Twitter boss Elon Musk branding it “a massive attack on the freedom of speech”.
The legislation is long-awaited.
Ireland currently does not have specific laws to deal with hate crimes, while its laws on hate speech are widely seen as archaic.
Existing hate speech laws date back to 1989, with the Prohibition of Incite to Hatred Act.
This makes it an offense to communicate threatening, abusive or insulting material that is likely to “stir up” hatred against a group of people.
However, under this law, a person can defend themselves against charges by proving they did not intend to spread hatred.
Their defense can be based on not knowing the contents of the materials or lacking a reason to suspect that it was threatening, abusive or insulting.
The new law changes this, making one liable for a hate crime even if they did claim they did not intend it.
Others were cautious about the bill.
“In general we support those changes as they are designed to make the law more effective and protect vulnerable groups from attack,” said the Irish Council for Civil Liberties in a statement sent to Euronews.
“However, we have been advocating to strengthen and make more explicit freedom of expression defenses in the Bill and we are advocating against the inclusion of an offense that would criminalize the possession and preparation of material that would incite hatred.”
They suggested “other forms of hate speech, which might cause deep offense but do not reach a criminal threshold, should be combated by other means, including education and monitoring”. — Euronews