The State cannot over-rely on proposed legislation to combat hate speech according to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), adding the roots of hate need to be tackled at a societal level.
The ICCL’s head of legal & policy Doireann Ansbro told Breakingnews.ie that while the group broadly welcome the proposals set out in the Criminal Justice (Incitement to Violence or Hatred and Hate Offences) Bill 2022, which is currently before the Seanad having passed in the Dáil last month, there are aspects which the council would like to see clarified or amended.
If signed into law, the legislation would create a hate-motivated offence under Irish law for the first time, seeking to protect against hate-motivated acts based on 10 protected characteristics, including race, religion, and sexual orientation, while also updating our current laws surrounding incitement of hatred.
Ms Ansbro stressed the proposed changes would not create new offences, as they would merely be applied to existing crimes, such as assault, making the law more workable.
“The hate element in a crime gets lost as the crime is prosecuted and goes through the criminal justice system,” she said.
“Ultimately a hate crime is targeted, not just at an individual but at an entire community, and we recognise that it causes additional harm, so we do think that having the option of having an aggravated sentence for a crime that is motivated by hate is a positive thing.”
However, Ms Ansbro stressed that aggravated sentences for hate-motivated offences “isn’t necessarily a longer prison sentence”, and instead could place a greater emphasis on restorative justice.
“If it’s a hate-motivated crime, there’s an issue there that may not be solved by a longer prison sentence, but rather by potential training or education through the probation service or community service. That might be a better way to recognise that additional harm,” she said.
Education may also play a role in preventing these types of crimes, with the ICCL calling on the Government to develop a hate-crime action plan to tackle the roots of hate.
Ms Ansbro said education, public awareness and training for public sectors workers could potentially reduce instances of hate crimes, while better supports for victims, including improved reporting mechanisms, could help those impacted by the often traumatic nature of these incidents.
“We can’t over rely on a piece of legislation that is only designed to tackle the most extreme forms of hate speech.
“We need to actually tackle the roots of hate if we want to see a reduction in hate incidence across society,” she added.
However, one of the biggest sticking points for the ICCL with the proposed legislation, in its current form, is the lack of clear definitions for many vital terms, such as hate and incitement.
In regards to hate speech, Ms Ansbro said these definitions would ensure we are protecting against “only the most extreme forms of hate speech” so as not to place undue limitations on freedom of expression.
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She added the freedom of expression defence in the legislation ought to be strengthened, observing the precedence set by European courts which stresses that while content may be shocking or offensive, it is not necessarily hateful.
By doing so, Ms Ansbro added legislators could remove the “bizarre defence” in the current iteration of the Bill, which places certain protections on literary, artistic, political, scientific, religious or academic discourse.
While admitting she understands the likely thinking behind this inclusion, she warned that people with a platform are most likely to have a “dangerous impact if they are inciting hatred”.
She added there should not be a defence for subsets of the population, adding that a stronger general freedom of expression defence would rectify that discrepancy and target only the “very top of the hate-speech pyramid”.