Ireland is preparing to enact a broader ban on hate crimes and hate speech as critics warn of effects on freedom of expression.

Backers presented the bill, The Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Act 2022, as an update of a 1989 law. They cited new technological developments and newly prominent minorities such as people of different races and religions, persons with disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ.

The Department of Justice, in an October summary of the bill, said many consider the 1989 law to be “ineffective,” with only about 50 prosecutions for violations in the past 30 years. It said updates to the bill protect “genuine freedom of expression.”

“Hate speech is designed to shut people down, to shut them up, to make them afraid to say who they are and to exclude and isolate them. There is nothing free about that, and there is, frankly, no place for it in our society.”

The bill passed the Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament, by a vote of 110-14 on April 26. It heads to the Senate for debate.

Commentator Dubhaltach O Reachtnin, writing in the U.K. newspaper the Catholic Herald in November, voiced concern the law could be used to prosecute priests or Catholic laity who voice Catholic teaching. The law finds that a “body corporate” can be responsible for violating crimes, which means the Church may be culpable for “the utterances of its more forthright members.”

CNA sought comment from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference but did not receive a response by publication.

Some Irish lawmakers have voiced criticism of the bill.

“Most ordinary people would support the prohibition of incitement to violence and violence on the basis of hatred. However, what this law does goes much further than that,” Aontú party Deputy Peadar Tóibín said during November debate in the Irish Dáil.

More in Europe

He noted the controversy over an RTÉ Radio talk show in which women objected to men or men who identify as transgender women being allowed into women’s spaces. This provoked “significant backlash” and accusations of transphobia and hate speech.

“Does the Minister believe that women saying that a woman is an adult female is transphobic and hate speech?” Tóibín asked. “Is it possible that a judge might in future have those views and implement the Minister’s legislation on the back of those?”

“It amazes me at times though, especially when looking at social media, that we often see that the people who dress themselves up in the color of love and inclusivity are often the people who are involved in shutting down debate and in stopping those ideas from being discussed,” he said, noting the hostility and threats to author J.K. Rowling because of her views on gender identity.

The author of the Harry Potter series has been accused of being “transphobic” for stating that “trans women” are not women.

“These are views that they do not believe she should have. These are views that they think is hate speech because she holds them,” said Tóibín, who voiced concern about “cancel culture” or “censorship culture.”

Another lawmaker critical of the bill, Deputy Paul Murphy of the People Before Profit–Solidarity party coalition, warned its provisions could “create a chilling effect on legitimate criticisms of the Catholic Church.”

“This could even potentially discourage people from criticizing the Church’s promotion of exactly the kind of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that the bill seeks to address,” he said in debate in November. “It could also potentially be used to level bogus charges of antisemitism and antisemitic hate speech against pro-Palestinian activists.”

(Story continues below)

On April 26, Murphy proposed an amendment to remove protections for religious discourse.

“A certain portion of hate speech, particularly homophobic, transphobic, or sexist hate speech in society is sometimes put forward under the guise of being a contribution to religious discourse. Fundamentally, that should not be a defense,” Murphy said.

Deputy James Browne, minister of state at the Justice Department, responded that religious freedom and practice are protected under the Irish Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Accordingly, religion is considered to merit a similar level of protection as literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic discourse,” Browne said. “Only the most severe types of speech that constitute incitement to violence or hatred would be criminalized under the bill. Discussion of protected characteristics, including criticism of matters relating to protected characteristics, is not a crime unless it crosses the line into incitement to violence or hatred. This remains a high bar and is not something into which people would just fall.”

Murphy’s amendment failed to pass.