Contempt of freedom of expression

Orla O Driscoll

Credit: Rushton Law

Our constitution guarantees that we have a right to freely express our convictions and opinions.

There is the addendum, however, that the State should try to make sure that the radio, the press, and the cinema are not used to undermine public order or morality.

Through the progression of our technologically advanced age, there was no constitutional place to advance the question around social media in this moral conundrum of specifications; or at least there wasn’t.

Now though, there appears to be a need to combine a legislative curve into the realm of freedom of expression, which has become a cornerstone of keyboard warriors across all aspects of social media. The dictum, to not comment where commentary could, might, or may impede the natural discourse of the application of law in a court of law, i.e. do not write anything on social media that could be seen to influence the law of the land in a court of law.

Most students have little room or time to question if the fidelity of their opinions, which they have been taught to use with great abandon, should be open to interpretation or indeed exploration at a further time.

Free speech with impunity, which could be seen to prove detrimental to the workings of a court of law, is set to become an offence, one which carries a heavy penalty for the social media sites which allow it to occur.

Legislative change proposed in the Dáil on Tuesday has the power to ensure future responsibility for contempt of court lies with the media companies who allow the publication of prejudicial content.

The bill brought to cabinet in its completion, by Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan pre-empts a commission report by former chief Justice Susan Denham and the law reform commission.

Going before cabinet Madigan said: “The bill will enter the Dail for its first stage today, and it will be an attempt to put contempt of court on a statutory basis as it has formerly been dealt with under common law. The bill will introduce a component directly relating to social media and new communications online. Susan Denham the former chief justice and the law reform commission have been looking for this and I am very proud to bring it to cabinet today.”

However, associate professor of law, at Trinity college, Eoin O Dell, said: “It is a premature and inconsistent bill. By that I mean that it is premature to come out with a complete bill without the full findings of the chief justice commission report.”

Michael O’Brien of AAA goes further, and says it is not only premature it is, in fact, unwarranted: “This bill is motivated by sour grapes by the political establishment.” He said.

O’Brien also noted the direction of the trial judge Melanie Grealy who oversaw the Jobstown trials, instructed jurors not to engage with social media, and she then rebuked the printed media over their coverage.

“It was mainstream media that went to town with the biased coverage and gave more credence to the DPP case than the defence case. In fact, in an interview the evening after the protest, TD Alex White was quoted in print media saying it was ‘false imprisonment’ of the Tánaiste, and this was before any charges were brought,” O’Brien said.

The expectation is that the bill will get the approval of cabinet, and that the law will be enacted through due process, a model the UK, may adopt, as it too looks to change its laws, with politicians calling for an end to ‘trial by social media’.