Politicians must frame laws that protect free speech

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

There were warm scenes outside Laganside court building in Belfast yesterday afternoon when Pastor James McConnell emerged at the end of his trial to cheering supporters.

Earlier in the day the preacher had been in the witness box, where he was the subject of a cross-examination that became tense at points.

The trial, which lasted three days, revolved around five words in the pastor’s sermon from May last year, when he said that he did not trust Muslims. At issue is whether or not those words were “grossly offensive”, which they have to be for Mr McConnell to be found guilty.

The District Judge in the case, Liam McNally, will give his ruling on Tuesday January 5.

This newspaper, while we strongly support the right of a minister to speak bluntly from a pulpit, does not seek to influence or pre-empt in any way the findings by the judge. He was praised by people who witnessed the case, including supporters of Pastor McConnell, for his handling of the hearings and his role is to rule in accordance with the law as it stands.

Without in any way contradicting that fact, a number of observations can already be made about this matter.

That a criminal case has been brought against the pastor, and was not deemed so weak as to be worthy of being thrown out during the case, means that Westminster needs to reconsider the wording of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

Plainly, a minister should be free to say that he does not trust tenets of another faith or even some adherents of that faith.

Depending on exactly what is said and how, it might be an objectionable or offensive or even despicable thing to say. It might be muddled or outright wrong. It must not be criminal.

If a minister is advocating murder, however, as some Islamic hate preachers have done in England, then it is reasonable for courts to become involved. But in general politicians must frame laws that ensure that the courts can rarely intrude on free speech, which is the cornerstone of a civilised society.