AVERIL CONTRIBUTION TO THE SEANAD ON HOMOPHOBIA AND FREE SPEECH

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I welcome the Minister to the House for this important debate. As Senator Bacik pointed out, in the aftermath of the revelations of RTE’s settlement last month with John Waters, Breda O’Brien and members of the Iona Institute, I called for the Minister to come before the House to discuss this issue. I did so for several reasons. First, I was horrified by the way that Rory O’Neill’s interview had been censored. Second, I was outraged that licence fee money had been paid over with such haste, and in circumstances where many barristers had argued convincingly that RTE could have successfully defended any threatened legal action. Third, I was deeply concerned about the precedent that RTE’s response could set for future public debate not just on issues related to equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people, but also on wide range of issues of public importance. I felt strongly that it was incumbent on the Minister to make sure that this decision does not set a dangerous precedent for public speech in this country.

Freedom of speech is absolutely essential to democracy. It is one of the key things that distinguishes us from oppressive states like Russia. As a democrat, I defend the rights of others to express freely their views on every issue, even if I find their comments offensive. Public debate should always be open and robust. People should hear all views and then be free to make up their own minds on who they agree with.

I have no doubt that the two individuals named on “The Saturday Night Show” were offended by the comments made about them, but both of these individuals are high profile journalists who frequently write things that others find offensive. They jealously guard their own freedom of speech, and rightly so, yet as soon as someone criticised them and pointed out the impact, influence and power that their comments have had on public debate and on other people, they issue legal threats against the individual concerned and the State broadcaster. In my view, it was particularly inappropriate for journalists to take such a course of action. They were offered a right of reply by RTE and could have taken up the opportunity either to speak on “The Saturday Night Show” the following week, or to use their own newspaper columns to outline their views. Instead, they opted for censorship and ensured that RTE paid €85,000 worth of licence fee money from every person in this country to themselves and to people associated with the Iona Institute.

In agreeing to settle, RTE betrayed its responsibility as a public service broadcaster to ensure that both sides of the debate are heard on issues of public importance. Several barristers have argued convincingly that RTE could have won any threatened legal action on the grounds of the honest opinion defence to defamation. That defence is set out in the 2009 Act and it applies to statements of opinion referring to matters of public interest, where the defendant can prove that the opinion was honestly held, and where facts on which the opinion is based are stated or otherwise widely known, or the facts on which it is based are true or covered by privilege. Once these criteria are met, the opinion can be expressed in very unpleasant terms. It is an opinion. It was clear from the show that it was Rory O’Neill’s honest opinion that the individuals to whom he referred were homophobic. The Minister or I might disagree with that, and other people in the room might disagree with that, but it was his opinion and our laws defend the right of people to put forward their honest opinions. Rory O’Neill made it clear on the show that the definition of the word “homophobic” that he was using included not just irrational fear and hatred of gay people, but also discrimination and prejudice based on sexual orientation. While people might argue that the word “homophobic” conjures up impressions of extreme behaviour, as was pointed out by Rory O’Neill on the show, the actual definition that is increasingly accepted covers a spectrum of behaviour, from the subtle to the extreme. Even taking the most restrictive interpretation of the word, I do not see how anyone could argue that the following comment by John Waters in a newspaper interview was not homophobic.
This is really a kind of satire on marriage which is being conducted by the gay lobby. It is not that they want to get married; they want to destroy the institution of marriage because they are envious of it.How anybody could argue that such a view is not based on irrational fear is beyond me. It was right that it was called out as such.

Everybody has a responsibility in public debate to conduct themselves in a responsible way, but this cannot mean that people are prohibited from giving their honest opinions on the hurt that they feel about arguments that other people have made in the public debate. It is my view that RTE’s response was inappropriate, but I think it is now time to move on from arguing over the meaning of the word “homophobia”, and focus instead on the discrimination that LGBT people still face in this country. In spite of all the progress that has been made in recent years, many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people still face intimidation and discrimination on a daily basis. Homophobic bullying is rife in our schools. We still have laws on our books that allow teachers and doctors to be fired just because they are gay, no matter how great a job they are doing, and loving couples are still denied one of the most basic and important rights of all, the right to marry.

It is important that we have a free discussion about these issues, that we are free to challenge these issues, and free to point out the hurt that they cause. I also accept that the country is on a journey of improvement to reach full equality. I hope that embracing full marriage equality will be the completion of that journey. I do not believe that everybody who opposes marriage equality is homophobic. I have never said that. I do not believe that. I just think there are many Irish people who just have not engaged with the issue. Perhaps they do not know lesbian and gay couples who are affected by it, who might live on their street or who are in their families, so they do not understand the impact that it has. However, I saw first hand at the Constitutional Convention that when people listen to those arguments and the personal stories about discrimination, it does change their opinions. We are engaged in a journey of education and persuasion, and I think we need to listen to the real concerns and fears of people, why they do not support equality, and we need to persuade them. That should be the focus of the debate.

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