Referendum should thoroughly revise free speech clause

Celtic Biblical image, via poetheadPart 5 of the Defamation Act, 2009 (also here), which came into effect on 1 January this year, controversially makes blasphemy a criminal offence. In the view of the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, the Constitution’s reference to blasphemy could not be ignored. It now seems that this reference might be removed. If so, the opportunity should be taken to revise the Constitution’s free speech clause in its entirety.

Stephen O’Brien reported in the Sunday Times last week that the Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, intends to propose an Autumn referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution (athiest.ie | Attracta | Dispatches | Guardian | Human Rights in Ireland | Human Rights World | Jurist | Bill Tormey | Volokh | William Quill). This was confirmed on Wednesday by Carol Coulter writing in the Irish Times (ABC | Catholic Lawyers | Iona | Sunday Times).

I have long argued that the protection of freedom of expression in the Irish Constitution is very puny indeed and ought to be replaced at the first opportunity. I argue in today’s Irish Times that a referendum to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution would provide just that opportunity:

Referendum on blasphemy should revise free speech clause

The promised referendum to remove the reference to blasphemy from the Constitution should go further, and entirely revamp the very limited guarantee of freedom of expression … Deleting one objectionable word, rather than thoroughly revising the whole gruesome clause, would be equivalent to repairing a single broken slate on the roof of a house which needs complete refurbishment. … The freedom of expression guarantee in the Irish Constitution is an example of the wrong way to protect free speech. The forthcoming referendum should replace it with something far better suited to the needs of a modern constitutional democracy.

The full text of a possible alternative is available here. The cases referred to in the piece are:

  • Murphy v Independent Radio and Television Commissions [1999] 1 IR 26; [1998] 2 ILRM 360 (Supreme Court held that free speech is fundamental both for personal development and as a foundation of democracy);
  • Corway v Independent Newspapers 1999] 4 IR 485; [2000] 1 ILRM 426; [1999] IESC 5 (30 July 1999) (Supreme Court held that the common law crime of blasphemous libel was too uncertain to give content to the constitutional crime);
  • Mahon v Post Publications [2007] 3 IR 338; [2007] 2 ILRM 1; [2007] IESC 15 (29 March 2007) (Supreme Court asserted that the right of a free press to communicate information without let or restraint is intrinsic to a free and democratic society); and
  • Dillon v DPP [2007] IEHC 480 (4 December 2007) (High Court held that section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 infringed constitutional protections of speech).
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