Thursday, 17 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Report and Final Stages
I am not convinced by the Minister of State's explanation in terms of the general point. To give a hypothetical, but a very real hypothetical, I could go onto Twitter now and find someone calling me whatever. In theory, a judge would only have to find that what the person said was "grossly offensive", which, by any literal standard, I am sure it would be, and that it was said with the intention of causing harm. The Minister of State is relying on that to say there is a very high bar. In fact, all the person has to have done, because of how "harm" is defined, is to "cause alarm". All he or she has to do is intend to cause me alarm by calling me whatever.
That is a significant freedom of speech problem. The reality of how it will or could be used, and I am just ringing an alarm bell here for the future, is precisely to criminalise those who are criticising those in power. They should not be using the language they are using or whatever but they certainly should not be criminalised for it. It is very concerning and I hope a constitutional protection for freedom of speech would mean that the judges would not seek to interpret it in such a broad way. However, I fear this is an issue that we are going to have to come back to in the future and amend, to try to defend freedom of speech and not to allow the law to be used in such a way as to criminalise people.