Let He with the Best Solicitor Speak Freely

This week has seen legal attacks not only on the LGBT community in Ireland but on the freedom of speech in Irish journalism as a whole.

The controversy began when Rory O’Neill, alter-ego of Dublin gay icon and pub-owner Panti Bliss, was interviewed on RTE’s Saturday Night Show on the  11th January.

The interview was going well until O’Neill attempted to discuss some of the prejudices still facing members of the LGBT community. O’Neill said that of course things has changed over time but that it there were still difficult to deal with the kind unpleasantness found “the internet in the comments and people who make a living writing opinion pieces for newspapers”. When pressed for examples O’Neill named John Waters, Breda O’Brien and the Iona Institute.

Not long after it was posted the interview was taken for “legal issues” following complaints made. When the interview was re-posted on line, all discussion of homophobia was edited out. A transcript of the missing section can be found here.

Now this obvious and upsetting piece of censorship was discussed eloquently by Trinity News writer Matthew in ‘Ignorance Isn’t Panti Bliss’ which was widely shared on social media in the outrage that followed.

O’Neill himself has received soliciter’s letters personally from Breda O’Brien, David Quinn, Patricia Casey, and John Murray (all of the Iona Institute the highly-conservative lobby group) and from John Waters.

John Waters, being the Irish Times columnist who wrote that the “gay lobby” want “to destroy the institution of marriage because they’re envious of it” and who is absolutely no way homophobic of course.

This is not the first time the head and founder of the Iona Institute, David Quinn, has silenced his critics or those of Iona with the threat of legal action.

Just last year David Quinn forced the University Times to retracted two articles it had published criticising the Iona Institute’s controversial YouTube video ‘The Case for Man/Woman Marriage‘ with threats of legal action. When Trinity News published an article describing these events, they themselves were contacted by his solicitor, as was published by the College Tribune.

It’s worth noting at this point that mostly the news outlets brave enough to risk Quinn’s legal wrath have been student publications with far less legal support than mainstream media.

‘Defamation,’ the common thread to these claims, is a slightly complicated piece of Irish law though it’s outlined brilliantly in relation to this case here. But ultimately nothing that is true can be legally considered defamation. Is the claim that the Iona Institute, Breda O’Brien and John Waters homophobic, not one of a opinion that O’Neill as a gay man is entitled to have?

Even outside of the range of opinion and in analysis of statements made against Same Sex Marriage by all three that they work against the mainstream of the LGBT civil rights movement is not a matter for debate, as is outlined in an analysis of statement here.

But I believe the real problem is that frequently it is not a question of whether those getting served with Quinn’s legal complaints are legally in the wrong but whether than can afford to run the risk that a judge might side with a wealthy, prominent public figure over them. Deeper pockets wins the debate; which is a scary thought for the future of journalism in Ireland.

Where does the argument for “defamation of character” end? How do we hold people accountable for defaming their own characters? Because the journalists and others Quinn has targeted are not in a position to stop his organisation publishing or operating, they are simply stating that they disagree. But Quinn’s actions serve to silence the opposition entirely. This incident certainly begs the question whether a wealthy, public figure can be held accountable for the offense his organisation causes so many people. 

And much more importantly when will we stop letting those with the most cash on hand, and the best solicitors dictate what is and is not fair debate?

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