Today marks the first day of Pastor James McConnell’s trial for, let’s see what it says here, “improper use of public electronic communications network” to send a “message or other matter that is grossly offensive,” meaning he streamed a video online some delicate soul found it worth the time to formally complain to his local police station about.
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, under which McConnell is charged, pretends there is some sort of objective standard for what can be deemed “grossly offensive.” But as we know, “offence” cannot be given, only taken. The word is for all intents and purposes utterly meaningless, unless we wish to enforce laws based solely on people’s subjective experiences.
However, the decision to prosecute is discretionary, depending on whether there is a public interest. McConnell’s crime, then, is voicing an opinion unfortunate enough to run contrary to what is deemed appropriate in polite society. Writing in today’s Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen absolutely nails this point.
Freedom of speech isn’t only for polite persons of mild disposition airing their views within Government-policed parameters. It’s about letting awkward, insulting, and even offensive voices be heard too.
Breen is one of the few journalists in Northern Ireland to take a principled stand on the prosecution of McConnell. On this she has been consistent, speaking truth to power in favour of McConnell’s right to freedom of speech, a right we should all be so inclined to defend, for it is ours to share.
How to account for the notable silence of some on the left? Breen has an answer, in words sharp enough to fatally skewer Northern Ireland’s liberal elite.
In Britain, the National Secular Society and liberal Islamic scholars have voiced their support for the pastor. World famous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins has also raised the case on social media. But in Northern Ireland there hasn’t been a squeak out of the liberal left.
Don’t expect them to join Christian protesters outside Belfast’s Laganside court today.
Their progressive pieties don’t extend to defending an evangelical preacher with unfashionable opinions.
Shame on them for either sitting on the fence or being on the wrong side of it. In any democracy worth its salt, freedom of speech isn’t a luxury for your friends, it’s a necessity for your enemies.
Here she is on the hypocrisy of appointing an ISIS sympathiser the chief witness for the prosecution.
The hypocrisy at the heart of this case is that the chief prosecution witness is Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who is hardly the man to point the finger at anybody over controversial comments.
Last year Dr Al-Wazzan praised Islamic State, which has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, as a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.
He later retracted the remarks after public outrage.
Given his own outburst, I don’t know how Dr Al-Wazzan has the nerve to denounce Pastor McConnell and demand that he be gagged.
He is certainly in no moral position to take the stand in court and give evidence against another cleric about airing extremist opinions.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has some nerve in calling him.
The only other point I would make is that Breen’s view on this case, as with McConnell’s own defence, is indeed a principled one. For those bound to their principles, it is perhaps the only defence worth considering. However, it’s unlikely to do McConnell any favours when the time comes to render a verdict.
Unlike Breen, McConnell won’t be given the opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy of the prosecution’s choice of witness, nor will he be able to comment on the Qur’an (see: the Satanic Verses). These points are irrelevant to whether McConnell’s sermon might be interpreted as being “grossly offensive.” In other words, the objective truth of what he said is of no consequence.
Undoubtedly, McConnell knows what this means. Going by his statements to the press during his appearance at Laganside Courts today, it certainly sounds as if he’s preparing himself for martyrdom. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.