Offensive speech should be frowned upon but not illegal

Morning View
Morning View

There are very serious questions facing society about freedom of speech and when comments or bad behaviour should be criminal.

Consider two cases before the courts, that of Pastor McConnell and the footballer Roy Keane.

Yesterday a court cleared Mr Keane of aggressively confronting a taxi driver. He was alleged to have got out of his Land Rover, sworn at the driver and flicked a V sign. The charge was causing harassment, alarm or distress.

The judge said there were inconsistencies in the case against Mr Keane, but even if there had not been, should it have been criminal?

To be clear, boorish behaviour by footballers (who are so influential to the young) is to be deplored. Violence and sexual assault must be prosecuted. But Mr Keane seems to have displayed a temper and behaved more badly than criminally.

Unlike Jeremy Clarkson, he did not punch anyone.

The case against Pastor McConnell relates to comments, and it is before the courts. The justice system will follow its course and we would not pre-empt or try to influence that.

But there are plainly wider questions to address now about whether it is permissible to say offensive things about a religion from the perspective of another religion or none.

This question was settled in Britain centuries ago. Christianity is rightly, like all faiths, open to a range of responses including being mocked, painful though that is for believers.

That must remain the case and all religions (or groups of people) should have to tolerate it so that criticism and comment, even rude or despicable comment, remains free.

Pastor McConnell, the PPS has explained, has not been prosecuted for a hate crime. But that is where the focus of the law should be: prosecuting genuine hate crimes.

That must not merely mean hurting feelings or speaking bluntly or extremely or rudely or in a chauvinist way. It should mean inciting or encouraging violence, as – for example – Islamic preachers in London have done.