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The 'gay cake' row and freedom of speech: Being offended isn't a right

The trouble with trying to put limits on free speech and the freedom of conscience is that you inevitably wind up tying yourself in knots.

Aaron McKenna

AS A NATION I suspect we’re at gay rights saturation point by today. After weeks of going to and fro on the right to marriage equality, it might be time for a little rest and maybe some sort of new government scandal to take the mind off it. Last week saw a ruling in Northern Ireland that on the face of it seems to be a gay rights issue, but when you scratch deeper becomes one of the defining issues for all our rights and freedoms.

In the past, we had the odious authoritarian right. Christian, socially conservative and willing to foist its views on anyone and everyone with the utmost cruelty, it led to some of the most shameful episodes in the short history of this country as nation state. Thankfully, that is now receding into the rear view mirror of history. We are seeing a rise, however, of a far less invidious but nevertheless irksome authoritarian liberalism.

In an attempt to right the wrongs of a deeply prejudicial past, there is an over compensation happening in places that sees individual rights of freedom and conscience trampled on in favour of the rights of previously marginalised groups. Not alone content to win legal equality across a range of material issues, the authoritarian sect of social liberalism currently in the driving seat seem to believe that they must win a curtailment of the rights of others to offer offence to their views.

The referendum was about a material impact on the lives of gay people – the “gay cake” case was not

One of the striking bits of feedback from many voters in the Marriage Equality Referendum, yet to pass at the time of writing, has been the noted aggression of some of the Yes camp. I spoke to many socially liberal voters who were irked, as one put it to me, at the “right-on, manifest destiny” approach. Some in the Yes camp resembled more than a passing resemblance to George W Bush and a straightforward “you’re with us or you’re against us” approach. No room for nuance, the campaign was almost Sinn Fein-like in its military adherence to the strict party line.

The equality referendum, however, is speaking to a material impact on the lives of gay people. Last week also saw the “gay cake” case come to its conclusion in Northern Ireland, where Christian bakery owners were found guilty of discrimination for refusing to bake a cake with a pro-gay rights slogan on it. This case was not material to gay rights: this was not the only cake maker in town, and refusing to bake the cake put no lives at risk. What the case was material to is the right of someone to express their conscience and to offend someone else in so doing.

It extends far beyond gay rights. Would I be within my rights to try and bind a Muslim bakery owner to produce a Charlie Hebdo memorial cake, with a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad on it? Or perhaps go down to a bakery run by someone who believes Israel is an evil apartheid state, and ask them to bake me up a cake to celebrate the foundation of that state? Should a staunch anti-water charges business owner be forced to print Fine Gael or Labour Party election t-shirts?

And even if I was within my rights in all these cases, would I be right to do it?

I do not believe that any of us have a right to be protected from being offended

The trouble with trying to put limits on free speech and the freedom of conscience is that you inevitably wind up tying yourself in knots. Society also shifts its views like sand on a busy beach, and cannot always be trusted to be wise in what it considers acceptable from one day to the next.

I do not believe that any of us have a right to be protected from being offended. I do believe that we have an inalienable right to expression of speech and conscience, so long as we do not materially harm another person.

In other words, if I’m a raging homophobe who runs a petrol station midway between two cities in the middle of a desert, I cannot refuse service to two lesbians. To refuse them service would clearly endanger their lives. But, if I have festooned my service station with anti-gay slogans and offend the newlyweds, that’s their tough luck; and my tough luck for being offended at the sight of a car flying the rainbow flag. We can all be offended, and get on with our lives.

If I’m in the middle of a city, of course, my gay-baiting (or Jew-baiting, or hipster-baiting, or anything else) signs in the window might turn away customers to the variety of other service stations they can go to. Their rights are not being trampled, their feelings are being hurt. Those are two different things.

We should resist the temptation to use the law to restrict freedom of expression and speech

The authoritarian stream of social liberalism irks me greatly, because I’m a true social libertarian. You can do whatever you like, so long as you harm nobody else. I don’t count offence as harm. This business of using the law to bind people to do things that they do not want to do is as good as conscripting them to fight your cause, regardless of their own views.

Northern Ireland operates a slightly different set of rules than the rest of the UK or Ireland. Those rules helped convict the bakery couple, primarily because limiting any political speech in NI is a dangerous thing. NI has these structures, along with their non-democratic stitch up of a parliament, because it’s the best compromise between civil rights and death and destruction on the streets.

In other places, however, we should resist the temptation to use the law to restrict freedom of expression and speech. I’d rather have a Westboro Baptist Church than risk a society where legitimate political and societal views are bottled up using authoritarian laws designed originally to protect the feelings of previously marginalised groups.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Gay cake row: Bakery GUILTY of discrimination, judge rules

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