There is a full note on the case here.
Today, Pastor James McConnell of Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle, North Belfast, was acquitted on two charges under the Communications Act 2003: improper use of a public electronic communications network and causing a grossly offensive message to be sent by means of a public electronic communications network. In a sermon broadcast on the Internet on 18 May 2014 he had said that:
“Islam’s ideas about God, about humanity, about salvation are vastly different from the teaching of the holy scripture. Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.”
In his reserved judgment, District Judge Liam McNally concluded that, though the words upon which the charges had been founded were offensive, they did not reach the threshold of being “grossly offensive”:
“The courts need to be very careful not to criticise speech which, however contemptible, is no more than offensive. It is not the task of the criminal law to censor offensive utterances.”
The line between “free speech” and “hate speech” is clearly a very difficult one to draw. Pastor McConnell received a wide range of support – ranging from the National Secular Society and First Minister Peter Robinson to Muslim scholar Dr Muhammad Al-Hussaini, who said that it was crucially important that people could “discuss, debate and critique religious ideas and beliefs”. But one cannot help wondering whether words that are not regarded as “grossly offensive” in Belfast might be viewed differently in Bradford.
An interesting result and, I suspect, the right one. If the decision had gone the other way it is hard to see how Bible passages such as John 8:39-47 would not, by implication, fall foul of of the same law.
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