An opinion piece on the Marriage Referendum and Free Speech by Stephen Todd

Recently, both globally and across Europe, the concept of free speech seems to be a hot topic. I understand that a person has a right to free speech, but they do not have the right not to be challenged on this when it is deemed to be oppressive or discriminatory in nature. This has in turn given me food for thought, when does free speech become hate speech? And is the regulation of this type of speech an infringement upon our human rights?

Free speech, in theory, is something that allows us to disseminate particular ideas and theories without restriction. It allows those with minority voices to speak out about injustices that they believe are not for the greater good of society. Unfortunately a casualty of this is the ability to speak about how you should be able to hold an opinion although it infringes on the human rights of another. This is where vision and interpretation becomes somewhat blurred.

Hate speech is defined as “speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, colour, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.” And as a citizen of the world, under the UN Convention on human rights, you maintain the right to be treated equally.

How do we manage these ideas in practice? In Ireland the definition of marriage within the constitution does not give same sex couples the right to be treated to the same privileges of those that a heteronormative married couple are entitled to, even though it does not define marriage as being between a man and a woman. This, by default, is an infringement on the right for same sex couples, as human beings, to be treated as equals. If this were a case of race, or age, or any of the other grounds of discrimination, I believe this could cause public outrage. The claim would be made that Ireland as a society is exclusionary. So why not in this case?

Although it has changed since previous generations, the separation of church and state in Ireland today is still not a clean one. Our laws contain some hangovers from when the Catholic Church was a primary legislator. It has been well documented that the views of the Catholic Church are seen as somewhat oppressive in certain cases. It was illegal to be a homosexual until 1993, therefore making it criminal to be open about your predisposition, and lifestyle choice. I respect the religious beliefs of all Catholics and they are beliefs that they are entitled to hold. What I don’t agree with is that they should be allowed to dictate that the basic human right of others – that of being treated as equal - should be disregarded due to their belief. Is that not what encourages people to resort to hate speech?

Anyway, on May 22nd I will be voting in the marriage equality referendum. I would ask you to please consider doing the same, from a place of equality and social justice. As I said, free speech is great, let’s keep it that way and not allow it to be used as a discriminatory crutch upon which to prop up one’s personal beliefs.