Why the right to give of­fence should never be trumped by the ‘right’ not to be of­fended

Belfast Telegraph - - REVIEW - Michael Kelly is ed­i­tor of The Ir­ish Catholic Michael Kelly

Fa­ther Ted writer Gra­ham Line­han is a comic ge­nius. His hit tele­vi­sion se­ries, which also in­clude The IT Crowd, are clas­sics that show no sign of grow­ing old. He’s also a pug­na­cious and some­times bel­liger­ent user of Twit­ter. He has al­most 700,000 fol­low­ers and can usu­ally be re­lied on for lead­ing so-called ‘twitch-hunts’, crit­i­cal of peo­ple per­ceived not to be pro­gres­sive in their views.

In a deeply ironic twist, he has now fallen foul of some of his erst­while cheer­lead­ers af­ter po­lice called to his house to is­sue him with a for­mal le­gal warn­ing over what they claimed was ha­rass­ment of a per­son who was born a man and now iden­ti­fies as a woman, and has had this iden­tity legally recog­nised.

Line­han and Stephanie Hayden had been in­volved in a Twit­ter spat over the writer’s views on trans­gen­der is­sues.

“There’s this un­ques­tion­ing rev­er­ence for any­one who says they are trans­gen­der, but this un­ques­tion­ing loy­alty is re­ally dan­ger­ous,” he in­sisted.

He claims that Hayden, who med­i­cally tran­si­tioned to a woman in 2007, re­leased de­tails of his home ad­dress on Twit­ter, and al­leges that this led him to use her pre-tran­si­tion names ‘Tony’ and ‘Steven’ on­line in re­tal­i­a­tion.

Hayden claims to have suf­fered se­vere dis­tress due to the row, and, as a re­sult, Line­han now finds him­self on the wrong side of the thought po­lice.

I don’t doubt for one mo­ment that Hayden felt up­set by the ex­change. But the crux of the mat­ter is whether or not we be­lieve it is re­ally the job of the

po­lice to mon­i­tor whether or not peo­ple are be­ing nice to one an­other on­line.

Any­one who ven­tures an opin­ion on­line knows it can be a nasty world. Bri­tain now has some of the most dra­co­nian

laws in the world when it comes to pro­tect­ing peo­ple’s feel­ings on the in­ter­net.

A few years ago, dur­ing the Olympics, an ob­nox­ious creep tweeted diver Tom Da­ley to say his fa­ther, who had died of

brain can­cer when Tom was a teenager, would have been dis­ap­pointed by the ath­lete’s per­for­mance. It was a par­tic­u­larly nasty com­ment, to which the po­lice re­sponded to with a for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The point is there is a huge dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing a prat and a dan­ger­ous hate-mon­ger — and peo­ple should be able to tell that dif­fer­ence.

Some politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors would like Ire­land to adopt the more ro­bust ap­proach to on­line un­kind­ness now com­mon­place in Bri­tain.

Left-lean­ing politi­cians, in par­tic­u­lar, have warned that laws against so-called hate crimes per­pe­trated on­line need to be tough­ened up.

The irony, of course, is that many who sup­port such re­stric­tions are also vo­cal sup­port­ers of the re­peal of the mean­ing­less ref­er­ence to blas­phemy in the Ir­ish con­sti­tu­tion. Most peo­ple ac­knowl­edge it has no force, but they claim it has a chill­ing ef­fect on free speech.

It’s ex­tra­or­di­nary how those so in­tent on re­mov­ing the of­fence of blas­phemy don’t see the irony in cam­paign­ing at the same time to dou­ble-down on free speech.

Mi­nori­ties de­serve le­gal pro­tec­tion from in­cite­ment to ha­tred and dis­crim­i­na­tion but, just as re­li­gious peo­ple don’t have a right to have their iden­tity pre­served from ridicule, no one has a right to be free from peo­ple say­ing un­kind things about them.

Any­thing that con­sti­tutes xeno­pho­bia, racism, or sec­tar­i­an­ism, must be — and is — pun­ish­able by the law, but no one should ex­pect to em­ploy the law to en­sure that their feel­ings are not hurt.

De­bate is, and should be, ro­bust. Some­times — par­tic­u­larly on­line — this can tend to­wards the un­civilised, but this is not dan­ger­ous. What is dan­ger­ous is build­ing a cul­ture where the right to be of­fen­sive is trumped by the right of an­other not to be of­fended.

I’ve no prob­lem with the re­peal of the of­fence of blas­phemy, but I’m also in­creas­ingly ex­ac­er­bated by those ad­vo­cat­ing lib­erty when it comes to re­li­gion, but re­stric­tions on al­most ev­ery other as­pect of free speech.

As Stephen Sond­heim might put it: “Send in the clowns. Don’t bother, they’re al­ready here.”

On­line un­pleas­antries: Gra­ham Line­han and Stephanie Hayden have been in­volved in a Twit­ter spat that led to the for­mer be­ing for­mally warned by po­lice

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