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  • Senator Sharon Keogan

Senator Sharon Keogan — 'Billboard Chris' and Freedom of Speech

I am sure many of us saw on Twitter the video of an exchange between a member of An Garda Síochána and "Billboard Chris", a Canadian father of two who has been touring North America, and now Europe, engaging in conversations about the use of puberty blockers on children. While walking Grafton Street over the weekend wearing a sandwich board that read "Children cannot consent to puberty blockers", he had a lengthy conversation with a garda who advised him that he could find himself falling foul of section 7 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, which prohibits the distribution or display of "any writing, sign or visible representation which is threatening, abusive, insulting or obscene with intent to provoke a breach of the peace". The garda later returned and clarified to Chris that he was entirely within his rights to do what he was doing. However, it really goes to show that anybody else could have been well and truly intimidated and could have chosen to leave the area or to stop exercising his or her freedom of speech for fear of prosecution.

I feel for the members of An Garda Síochána. It must be very difficult to make a judgment call in the moment as to whether any given section of the law is being transgressed. What would aid them in this is having clear-cut unambiguous laws that set out clear tests to establish wrongdoing. What makes their job almost impossible is law that is broad and sweeping in nature and which can criminalise almost any behaviour, depending on the circumstances in which it occurs and on how it is perceived by those around.

Our new hate speech offences Bill, of course, falls firmly in the latter category. This kind of thing is exactly what we are talking about when we say that the Bill will have a chilling effect, causing people to self-censor. It will shut down genuine debate because people will fear arrest or prosecution. We need a debate, even before the Bill is before the House, on what kind of country we want to live in when it comes to freedom of speech and the free and open exchange of ideas.

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