Like many North Americans of Irish descent I quite often like to play up that aspect of my heritage–although in my case it runs more to quoting Yeats, listening to songs about killing the English1, and drinking Guinness than to wearing KISS ME I’M IRISH shirts or drinking blechh green beers.
From time to time though, there are certainly things about the mother country that just embarrass the hell out of me. These often center around religious ridiculousness.
And this week’s certainly taken the cake in that department.
If you read Thursday’s story in the Independent, you’d think it was no big deal, just a bit of legislative business as usual:
MAJOR new legislation reforming the State’s libel laws and enabling judges to advise juries on the size of damages was passed in the Dáil yesterday.
The Defamation Bill, which also introduces a new crime of blasphemous libel, will come into operation after it is passed by the Seanad later this week and signed into law by President Mary McAleese.
Reading Friday’s story in the Irish Times though, starts to give a very different view, with some discussion of the bill not just as a change in the libel rules, but referencing the issue of a “crime of blasphemy”.
That’s enough to make me go read the wording of the bill. Let’s just ignore the libel bits and focus on the section about blasphemy. Prepare to be shocked:
36. Publication or utterance of blasphemous matter.
(1) A person who publishes or utters blasphemous matter shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable upon conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding €100,000. [Amended to €25,000]
(2) For the purposes of this section, a person publishes or utters blasphemous matter if (a) he or she publishes or utters matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion, and (b) he or she intends, by the publication or utterance of the matter concerned, to cause such outrage.
(3) It shall be a defence to proceedings for an offence under this section for the defendant to prove that a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates.
37. Seizure of copies of blasphemous statements.
(1) Where a person is convicted of an offence under section 36, the court may issue a warrant (a) authorising any member of the Garda Siochana to enter (if necessary by the use of reasonable force) at all reasonable times any premises (including a dwelling) at which he or she has reasonable grounds for believing that copies of the statement to which the offence related are to be found, and to search those premises and seize and remove all copies of the statement found therein, (b) directing the seizure and removal by any member of the Garda Siochana of all copies of the statement to which the offence related that are in the possession of any person, © specifying the manner in which copies so seized and removed shall be detained and stored by the Garda Siochana.
(2) A member of the Garda Siochana may (a) enter and search any premises, (b) seize, remove and detain any copy of a statement to which an offence under section 36 relates found therein or in the possession of any person, in accordance with a warrant under subsection (1).
(3) Upon final judgment being given in proceedings for an offence under section 36, anything seized and removed under subsection (2) shall be disposed of in accordance with such directions as the court may give upon an application by a member of the Garda Siochana in that behalf.
Unless I have lost the ability to read English, that bill pretty much makes illegal a whole ton of things I would normally consider inviolate free speech, and gives the cops the ability to do warrantless2 search and seizure of anything “blasphemous” based only on the “reasonable suspicion” standard. I’m fairly certain there’s a number of books on my shelves that would qualify, not to mention the fact that the contents this blog alone probably would have me facing, many, many 25,000 pound fines. I could theoretically mount a merit defense, for each one, but one raises ones eyebrow generally at those reverse onus laws, where the crime is assumed to be committed and the accused had to prove it wasn’t–especially when such proof is based on a subjective criterion.
Also, besides all the other reasons why this is ridiculous on its face, note that this encodes in law the notion that the crime is committed not based on the intent of the speaker, but based on whether or not someone feels outraged by what the speaker says. Talk about encoding the “thinnest skin” (or in this case “least rational”) principle in law. Yarg.
Today I’m thinking I’ll not be playing up my heritage, that’s for sure–not with Ireland essentially legislating the return of the Dark Ages.
Oh yeah, and I looked at the Globe & Mail, the CBC, The NY Times, and CNN, and there’s no coverage of this at all at any of them to date. It is making some news in the UK albeit in opinion pieces.