The Irish government’s plan to introduce the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022 has recently generated much controversy. The legislation could have serious implications for how the country will ensure the right to freedom of expression whilst protecting the rights of persons of “certain characteristics”. Free speech and expression remain a valued part of Irish society. While this freedom is protected by Ireland’s constitutional framework, critics have called into question how the bill could impinge on free thought and discussion regarding the consequences of judicial actions against hate speech. Navigating these issues while upholding individual liberties and the ethos of academic inquiry and expression will always present challenges for academic institutions. 

Maples and Calder Ireland sponsor The College Tribune’s Law Section

Ireland’s Current Legislative Position

While different nations have distinct legal procedures for dealing with hate speech, Western nations have employed some common processes to defend certain demographics. The European Union has declared a hate-motivated crime and speech illegal under the 2008 Framework Decision, which serves to criminalise racism, xenophobia, and public incitement to violence and hatred towards ethnic and religious groups. Similarly, the government of Ireland’s proposed Criminal Justice Bill essentially aims to crack down on hate speech offences made against persons of “certain characteristics”, based on race, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Currently, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 is the only legislation in force in Ireland that deals with hate-based crimes in the form of action, speech, and the making or possession of hateful material. This law gives people the right to defend themselves against allegations where they had no intention of inciting hatred or if there was no basis for confirming that they had used threats, abuse, or insults. 

The Criminal Justice Bill supposedly aims to modify that, rendering someone accountable for a hate crime even if it was not their intention. While this alone has the capacity to become a major challenge to democracy, it also has the potential to create greater issues down the line. For instance, the media has already begun to scrutinise how key parts of the Criminal Justice Bill, such as “hate speech” and “incitement to violence”, are not clearly defined and could thus be open to subjective interpretation. This raises doubts as to how the law will be applied and if inconsistent interpretation may result in misunderstandings by both the general public and law enforcement. Furthermore, despite heavy criticism of the new legislation by ordinary Irish citizens and political representatives alike, the Irish government has no intention of revising the terms outlined in the bill, nor does the general public currently have a say in the decision-making process of this amendment.

The Criminal Courts of Justice, Dublin

Implications for Students

Universities across Ireland already have their own hate speech policies in place to ensure that all students are treated fairly and equally. While the Criminal Justice Bill could enhance these policies to make campuses safer and more welcoming environments, students may be concerned that it also has the potential to limit freedom of expression in classroom settings. Furthermore, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties has suggested that “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”. This implies that the Irish government could initiate additional hate speech policies in academic institutions across the country. 

Furthermore, determining what constitutes hate speech can be challenging because different people and cultures have their own ideas of what is considered harmful or violent. As the amendment is currently worded, it could result in bitter disagreements over which words fall into discriminatory territory or remain within the range of legitimate conversation. This uncertainty may lead to misinterpretation, making it difficult to find the correct balance between safeguarding vulnerable populations and ensuring freedom of expression. 

Senator Eileen Flynn, a supporter of the Criminal Justice Bill, has her own reservations about the bill in its current form. She believes that the government should “go through [the legislation] with a fine comb and say, ‘this is our definition of hatred.’” Similarly, Senator Michael McDowell emphasises the importance of clearly defining what hatred means; otherwise, the legislation will effectively “leave it to the judges to determine what the bar should be in terms of criminality.” Students may be discouraged from voicing controversial viewpoints or engaging in open conversations on sensitive topics out of fear of legal repercussions. 

Final Points

Supporters of the legislation argue that such fears are mere conspiracies that have been greatly blown out of proportion, which could well be true. Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, reaffirms that individuals will “still be able to debate and discuss issues regarding protected characteristics” and that “you can be offensive, say things that make others uncomfortable, have full and robust debate – but you cannot incite hatred or violence.” 

The bill cleared the second stage in the Seanad in June of this year after passing the last phase in the Dáil in April. However, the legislation will not advance to the committee stage until sometime this September. Until then, we cannot know for certain how or even if the bill will impact our right to freedom of expression, particularly in academic circles. Nevertheless, it is certainly worth noting that it has the capacity to bring about profound change for all individuals across the country, for better or for worse.

Holly Janes – Law Writer