Freedom of speech is an important right. But does it include the right to shout “Fire!” when there isn’t one? Of course not. The right to freedom of speech should always be mitigated by our responsibility to others.

There are already laws that infringe on freedom of speech to stop people starting fights, inciting riots or plotting treason. These make sense to preserve social order, and rightly they are rarely challenged. I don’t think that Irish advocacy group Atheist Ireland has any problem with them, so why are they challenging the new Irish law against blasphemy which punishes those who “publish or utter matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage”? The group claims it’s because the law “silences people in order to protect ideas”. But their opposition is not a simple compassionate cry for uninhibited freedom of speech, justice or putting people before ideas.

Of course, Atheist Ireland is right that anyone should be free to discuss religious issues without fear of retaliation or censorship. But they seem to have misunderstood, because the law doesn’t punish discussion. Atheists may claim the law puts the blame for religious oversensitivity onto atheists, and in doing so endorses religious violence. But this law does not excuse violence; it punishes intentionally harmful insults that serve no function other than to provoke unrest. The infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed fall under this category. Those cartoonists were placing their own negative ideas about religion before the people who get upset by their actions.

Atheists complain that Muslims overreacted over the pictures, claiming that it was ‘just a joke’. But blasphemy is always ‘just a joke’ to someone, and that’s the point; making Mohammed into a joke turns something sacred into something meaningless, and with their opposition to the new law, this is what Atheist Ireland wants to do to religion itself. Why?

Atheist Ireland has its own bias: for them a ‘free’ and ‘secular’ society is ‘sacred’ and religion is ‘profane’. When they know it furthers deep political and religious divisions to do so, they should seriously consider their social responsibilities when publishing abusive quotations on their website deliberately to provoke the authorities.

I find myself in an odd position. I oppose the new law: though this government has passed it to protect an unstable society, it could be misused. Laws should protect our right to freedom of speech within reason, but our responsibility to others is our choice, not the government’s. Atheist Ireland members need to take their responsibility more seriously. Legislation is a step too far, but the reasons for opposing this law should be well-meaning rather than self-protecting.

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