the Irish for rights

The Constitution at 70

Cover of Irish ConstitutionThe Irish Constitution is 70 years old this year. To mark this (platinum?) anniversary, Dr Oran Doyle and Dr Eoin Carolan, colleagues at the School of Law, TCD, have organized a conference, The Constitution at 70 (website | brochure (pdf))

Oran invited me to speak at the conference on the theme of freedom of expression in a session on unenumerated rights; I was delighted by the invitation, and (as I’ve mentioned before on this blog) I accepted with alacrity, as this is something on which I have Views! This post is about the current state of those Views, but it is offered not as my final thoughts on these issue but very much as ideas in progress, on which I would be grateful to receive comments, either here or off-blog.

Luminarium, Dublin, 15 Jan 2007Under the Constitution, there are at least three expression interests. First, there is the right to freedom of expression in Article 40.6.1(i). Second, a right to freedom of the press has also been spelled out of Article 40.6.1(i). And third, there is a right to communicate as one of the unenumerated rights in Article 40.3.

The first theme of my paper will largely be the story of this right to communicate. In AG v Paperlink Ltd [1983] IEHC 1; [1984] ILRM 373 (15th July 1983), Costello J took a narrow approach to the right to freedom of expression in Article 40.6.1(i), and then posited an unenumerated right to communicate as a supplement to the narrow Article 40.6.1(i). It was an unnecessary cure for a non-existent ill: a flexible, purposive approach to Article 40.6.1(i) would have achieved the same end. And it had unfortunate consequences. The effect of proposing a right to communicate was to stultify development of the right to freedom of expression. I am, in principle, in favour of unenumerated rights doctrine; but this kind of pernicious development gives this doctrine a bad name, and calls other, more legitimate, developments into question. Thankfully, these consequences are now being undone, first in Murphy v IRTC [1999] 1 IR 12, and more recently in Mahon v Post Publications [2007] IESC 15 (29 March 2007) (already discussed on this blog). The second theme of my paper will be the effects of this latter case on the constitution’s protections of expression, communication and press freedom.

Now that the missteps of Paperlink are being addressed, and the current is running strongly in favour of right to freedom of expression in Article 40.6.1(i), important questions remain; in particular, what to do with the right to communicate? As I see it, at least three things are possible: overrule it, ignore it, or embrace it. The courts won’t overrule it, not least because it was accommodated in Murphy and (to a lesser extent) in Mahon. Moreover, the courts would be understandably slow to overrule an unenumerated right – to do so would undermine the whole unenumerated rights project. But they are in danger of accommodating it by ignoring it. This would be a pity; it could still be made meaningful, even if not in the way originally envisaged in Paperlink: as media studies theory argues (see Daithí Mac Sithígh’s take on this issue here (pdf)), there is far more to the process of communication than merely expression, and if Article 40.6.1(i) is to be home to the protection of freedom of expression, then the Article 40.3 right to communicate could be the home for this broader panoply of communication. The possibility of such an alternative expansive reading of the right to communicate will therfore be the third theme of my paper.

Finally, there are some lessons in this saga for the development of the right to freedom of the press which, since Irish Times Ltd v Ireland [1998] 1 IR 359, is in the process of being spelled out of Article 40.6.1(i). It is unclear whether it is emerging as a concomitant of freedom of expression, or from the text of the curious middle sentence of the paragraph. To avoid missteps similar to Paperlink, we must not only give the right to freedom of press a stable textual basis in Article 40.6.1(i), we must also interpret it purposively and take it seriously (as Edwin Baker has recently argued, we must recongise the independent signficance of a constitutional guarantee of press freedom). How this might happen will be the fourth theme of my paper.

The four themes weave together to make an argument in favour of a socio-political culture (or, as Jack Balkin has recently said, an infrastructure) of expression, communication and press freedom, a culture or infrastructure which will both inform and in turn be informed by the next 70 years of speech doctrine under the Irish Constitution.

7 Responses to “The Constitution at 70”

  1. I thought free speech was only allowed it it wasn’t sedititious, blasphemous or indecent? So what’s the point in having it if you have to toe the line? Surely the fact that free speech is, to say the least, fettered can’t be ignored?

  2. Eoin says:

    No, it can’t Antoin; you’re absolutely right. And that fettered approach to Article 40.6.1(i) was that taken by the Supreme Court in The State (Lynch) v Cooney [1982] IR 337, when it upheld the constititionality of section 31 of the Broadcasting (Authority) Act, 1960 (also here). My point is, though, that the Courts have begun to move away from that position. Murphy represents a signifcant analytical advance on Lynch, further reinforced by recent decisions, including Mahon. In my view, we are now about to get beyond that fettered approach, and forge a new socio-political culture; and my paper will be about the judicial elements of this process.

  3. Karole says:

    “[T]he courts would be understandably slow to overrule an unenumerated right – to do so would undermine the whole unenumerated rights project.”

    Why should the Supreme Court in an appropriate case be slow to overrule what you describe as a (High Court) misstep? Are judgments delcaring unenumerating constitutional rights some different class of precedent? I’m also curious as to why you say overruling an unenumerated right-discovering/announcing judgment would “undermine the whole … project.” Is it that it would reveal the doctrine has little link to the actual text of the Constitution?

  4. Eoin says:

    In AG v Paperlink Ltd [1983] IEHC 1; [1984] ILRM 373 (15th July 1983) Costello J held that the Post Office’s monopoly on letter delivery conferred by section 34(2) of the Post Office Act, 1908 was infringed by the defendant’s letter courier service in and around the city of Dublin, and that s34(2) did not infringe the constitutional right to communicate. Against this background, it’s interesting to learn that significant elements of First Amendment doctrine were also influenced by Post Office history; see Anuj Desai “The Transformation of Statutes into Constitutional Law: How Early Post Office Policy Shaped Modern First Amendment Doctrine” (SSRN; (2007) 58 Hastings Law Journal (forthcoming); hat tip Concurring Opinions). From the abstract:

    We typically think of constitutional law as the product of text, structure, constitutional history, ethical and moral philosophy, or common law doctrine. At times, though, constitutional law comes directly from societal institutions; those institutions in turn are often rooted in legislative, not judicial, choices. In this article, I tell an intriguing story of constitutional lawmaking in which policy choices about an institution developed into constitutional law. I look at two important areas of First Amendment doctrine: First Amendment constraints on government spending, i.e., “unconstitutional conditions”; and what is known in First Amendment jurisprudence as “the right to receive.” I argue that the genesis of both doctrines can be found in legislative choices made during the formation of one of the nation’s first “administrative agencies,” a communications network that was viewed as the internet of its day: the United States Post Office. When the twentieth century Supreme Court held that the First Amendment can constrain government spending and then later, in a separate line of cases, established “the right to receive,” the Court initially relied on specific attributes of the post office. Those attributes in turn had been established by choices made by policymakers during the late eighteenth century. In short, the Court incorporated aspects of the early postal statutes into First Amendment doctrine. Legislative choices in effect became constitutional law.

  5. […] baleful for most of its existence but now pregnant with positive possibility, are the focus of my paper at this weekend’s conference on The Constitution at 70 (website | brochure (pdf)) organized […]

  6. Clare says:

    While doing some research on defamation I came back to this post. I apologise in advance for being cheeky, bit I feel the need to comment on ‘Costello J took a narrow approach to the right to freedom of expression in Article 40.6.1(i)’ – have been feeling it for a while:

    The drafters of Bunreacht na hÉireann always had the following in mind: one’s liberty ends where another’s starts – I think you will agree it is apparent throughout the Constitution. If I send you a letter outlining all the dirty business of someone you know and respect – and consequently you lose that respect, it is by all means communication; but it is in no way a statement of my views, convictions and opinions, it is just me trying to stir up trouble and it is clearly immoral (the frustration it would cause you is the proof).

    How could Costello J interpret Art 40.6.1 purposively when it is expressly subject to moral values?

  7. paul l says:

    Hi there, interesting article, you talk about the right to communicate but is there any provision which allow companies a similar right such as corporate free speech?

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.

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