A Northern Irish pastor accused of broadcasting a “grossly offensive” message has been cleared of all charges. James McConnell was charged under the 2003 Communications Act having live-streamed a sermon in which he claimed Islam was “heathen”, “satanic” and “a doctrine spawned in Hell.” In the same sermon, he also stated “People say there are good Muslims in Britain – that may be so – but I don’t trust them.” You can read more details about the case here.
In his summary, the judge hearing the case stated it is “not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.” He found that “courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive… Accordingly, I find Pastor McConnell not guilty of both charges.” The ruling has found support amongst many evangelical Christians, the National Secular Society and Muhammad al-Hussaini, a senior research fellow in Islamic studies at the Westminster Institute who turned out to support pastor McConnell.
It is certainly heartening to know that the law can still find in favour of free speech. It is vitally important that views which are offensive, unpleasant, contemptible or unorthodox but which nevertheless are not tending to incite violence are permitted in the public square. As Lord Justice Sedley said back in a 1999 ruling, “Free speech includes not only the offensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, providing it does not tend to provoke violence.” As pastor McConnell’s words were in no way inciting violence, there really was no case to answer.
Though there is still concern over the limits to free speech imposed on society by government, judges are still (by and large) inclined to maintain freedom of speech where they are able. Of course, they are nonetheless restricted by the ruling of parliament. For most, including the likes of pastor McConnell, the issue does not primarily lie with the ruling of the courts but with the interpretation of the law by both the police, DPP and CPS. It was apparent to most people that pastor McConnell really had no case to answer and it took a judge a mere three days to reach the same conclusion. Nonetheless, police interference and the threat of prosecution have been hanging over the accused since May 2014. The cost of mounting a defence and the ongoing stress and strain of such proceedings, not to mention the initial fear and worry involved when the police first make their charges known, are incredible when even the likes of the National Secular Society were suggesting the prosecution was a nonsense.
To avoid this kind of thing, all parties involved in the implementation of law need to be on the same page. Parliament need to be clear on what mischiefs they are, and are not, seeking to curtail. Judges need to know the will of parliament in the clearest possible terms. The police and CPS both need to be clear on precisely what the law says and whether one needs to be held in custody or not.
Story after story appears of the police arresting, and shortly releasing, harmless street preachers and the CPS pressing ahead with the prosecution of individuals who have done little more than voice some opinion which is not shared by the majority and does not accord with mainstream orthodoxy. The law courts may have found pastor McConnell not guilty but the police and CPS seemed to think this case had merit and were prepared to spend public money on chasing a prosecution. Though the ruling of the court really does matter – and is a vital part of ongoing case law and clarifying where the boundaries of the law lie – it is surely incumbent upon the police and CPS to be aware of such before bringing preposterous cases such as this.
A man voicing an opinion – however ill-considered, unpleasant and missiologically unhelpful – is not a basis for prosecution unless he happened to round off his thoughts with a call to violently purge the Muslims he “don’t trust.” Clearly he did not do this and the case was a ridiculous spectacle. It amounted to the prosecution of a man who voiced an opinion about Islam. Unkind and questionable it may have been, worthy of prosecution it most certainly wasn’t.
Though the court clearly saw the issue, evidently the police and CPS did not. This is a troublesome thing indeed. For every case of a person saying a thing that does not accord with received wisdom cannot possibly be decided in a court of law. In some measure, the problem is the legislation that seeks to limit free speech, no matter how well meaning the measure itself and how contemptible the views it is trying to prohibit. But there is an equal problem with the application of certain laws by police and the CPS. Some legislation is drawn loosely enough that the interpretation placed upon it by the police ends up making law enforcement about curtailing thoughts and words rather than preventing actions that tend to harm. It also leads to a situation in which an already under-funded service is having to direct its scant resources towards trifling matters of hurt feelings and offended sensibilities rather than hurt bodies and offensive behaviours. Even if we are not sold on the principle of free speech, surely we can see it is simply not pragmatic to prosecute and arrest people on the basis of subjective matters of offence?
It is good news for us all that pastor James McConnell has been cleared of all charges. His opinion on Islam, whatever we may think of it, is just that; an opinion. If opinion becomes worthy of prosecution, we all better be sure we don’t voice any that fail to agree with the cultural zeitgeist. Thankfully, the courts recognised this issue. We now need to pray that the police and CPS begin to recognise it too.