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Is free speech now threatened?

I am a fan of the television programme Judge Judy, though my American-based daughter tells me that I am “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in my viewing tastes.

The programme is predictable. It has the same sort of characters, all litigants in small-court civil cases. The format of each episode is the same. The scripts are almost identical. The judgements are concise and immediate. But it is Judge Judy herself, sharp, fortright, plain-speaking, that makes this programme worth watching.

She speaks her mind. She says things, which in Ireland, have now become, unsayable, politically-incorrect and an open invitation to the feared “solicitor’s letter.” To the 19 year-old young mother of three children, all by different fathers, she issues an uncompromising dictum: “No more children. You have enough.” She has little time for the manipulator of social services. “Get a job,” she snaps, “pick cans.” When she doubts the veracity of a witness, she tells them that she doesn’t believe a word they are saying and she calls them liars.

We are now so circumscribed by what we can say, and how we say it, that if any Irish judge at any level in the legal system, and under privilege, were to openly express such opinions in an Irish court, and articulate them so robustly, there would be an explosion of public outrage. Joe Duffy’s “Liveline” would make a meal of it for a week. Incandescent listeners would clog the airways. Questions would be asked in the Dáil. Letters of condemnation would pour into the newspapers.

None of the above is meant to advocate calumny or detraction nor incitement to public disorder, nor to taking anybody’s good name, all of which are very wrong both morally and legally, but it does pose the question: Have we now become so stymied by political-correctness, that fair comment or open vigorous debate has become impossible?

For instance, there has been little public discussion on the proposed amendment to the Constitution on gay marriage. The argument that while current legislation allowing for civil partnership has been widely welcomed, nevertheless the proposed changing of the status of marriage does present difficulty for many ordinary people. Those who argue that marriage, by its nature, is a long-established, universally accepted institution for the procreation and rearing of children, risk being derided as homophobic.

This type of pejorative labelling has permeated ordinary conversation. A friend told me of an incident she witnessed at a pedestrian-stop, where a number of people were waiting. A woman stepped out from the group into the path of fast-moving cars, made the crossing and then turned around and gave an obscene gesture to the shocked motorist. “It didn’t knock a feather out of her,” my friend said, “but she could have caused the most terrible accident.” And she added: “I suppose if I said that the woman was coloured, I would be accused of being racist.” And, indeed she would.

The embargo placed on free and fair comment, made sincerely, without malice or mischief or the deliberate decision to cause offence, has now become almost endemic in public and print commentary. When people with knowledge and expertise expressed fears that the banks were lending recklessly, that developers were building indiscriminately, and that the government was spending too much, Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, told them they were “lullahs” who should “go away and commit suicide.”

The Celtic Tiger, he implied, was a healthy indestructible animal who would live forever, and anybody who might doubt that was a begrudging fool. Free speech, expert analysis, objective study, all can be bullied and jeered into silence. Loud mouths can shout down common sense.

But that silence becomes particularly sinister when it is imposed on the media by the threat of legal action, because a free press has long been regarded as an essential prerequisite in the maintenance of democracy.

The Environment Reporter on the “Irish Times” became aware of corruption in planning in the Dublin local authorities. He witnessed the exchange of bribes between the representatives of developers and some elected representatives, and wrote at the time, though circuitosly, about it. Many years later, he described the sheaves of “solicitors’ letters” which descended on his Editor’s desk. Any further investigation of the subject was strangled at birth, but subsequently tribunals confirmed that what he wrote had been true and factual.

In the current issue of “The Sunday Times,” Justine McCarthy reports a somewhat similar experience. During the excesses of the property boom, that newspaper carried a feature on the purchase of some prestigious property. The person named denied ownership, and threatened “the law” in letters so blazing with “self-righteousness” that they “would give you sunburn,” to quote the journalist. The threat was used to try to suppress information, which subsequently proved to be true in a bankrupt hearing.

All of this raises the inevitable question: Had we known then what we know now, would institutions and powerful people, pursuing their own self-serving ambitions, have been allowed by us ordinary Irish people to plunge a generation or two into austerity and forced emigration.

So free speech and a free press and media have to be protected. People must not be intimidated from expressing sincerely-held opinions or making a cogent reasonable argument by the prospect of being labelled as sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, or whatever you’re having yourself.

Meanwhile: Viva Judge Judy!

 

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