There is a troubling report out of Ireland that raises many of the concerns that we have discussed earlier about the erosion of free speech in the West. Bernadette “Bernie” Smyth is one of Northern Ireland’s most prominent anti-abortion activists and the founder of Precious Life, a pro-life group. She was convicted this week of two counts of harassment that stem from her picketing of the country’s only abortion clinic. The charges were brought by the clinic’s director, Dawn Purvis, who runs the Belfast branch of Marie Stopes. However, the line drawn in the case could create a chilling effect on political and religious speech in the future.
She had been picketing the site since its opening in 2012. Purvis however said that Smyth crossed the line in an exchange that they had outside of the clinic when Purvis asked them to stop harassing her. Smyth reportedly replied in what was described as an exaggerated Ballymena/American drawl: “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.” Smyth was also accused in court of “laughing menacingly” at Purvis.
Smyth reportedly denied the exchange at first, but even if it occurred, this hardly seems the stuff for a criminal charge. The concern is not just the curtailment of free speech activities but the selection prosecution over such encounters. It seems hard to believe that such exchanges do not occur regularly without making them into criminal matters.
The prosecutor also alleged that Smyth had been “moving around in front of the window, cackling in a witchy manner.” Criminal cackling?
The defense questioned whether there was real fear in the two separate incidents. It is hard to see how one distinguishes between normal laughter and laughing in an “intimidating and menacing way”.
The judge added to the discomfort over free speech by accusing Smyth of “deliberately and maliciously” slandering a police officer during the trial when she suggested that police officials had questioned professional conduct of the arresting officer. In light of that statement, the judge that “the range of possible sentencing may go from community service to imprisonment.”
That all seems incredibly heavy handed and reinforces the view that Smyth’s political and religious views may have influenced her treatment.
The Smyth case creates a highly uncertain and troubling line for free speech in Ireland, particularly on one of the most divisive issues of religious and political speech.