Andrew Tettenborn

The unexpected free speech threat coming from Northern Ireland

Credit: Getty images

Threats to free speech can come from unexpected places these days. A law passed in Northern Ireland has troubling implications for what can be said or reported about serious sexual misconduct, not only in Belfast, but also in London.

Victims of sexual offences are granted lifetime anonymity in the UK. The law bans publications from printing anything that could publicly identify them. But since September, the Northern Ireland Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act goes way further. It extends the gag to 25 years after the victim’s death unless a court decides otherwise, and allows any relative down to a great-grandchild to petition the court to prolong it if it thinks this in the public interest.

Free speech must be freedom to say what one thinks without permission

The Act has also introduced a new legal gag which now applies to reports about anyone investigated by, or even reported to, the Northern Irish police (PSNI) for a sexual offence. If the suspect isn’t charged or convicted in their lifetime, this continues until 25 years after their death – unless a court graciously decides otherwise. Again the court can make this period even longer if it sees fit. Shockingly, it even applies to events that took place before the Act was passed and, therefore, to events that before September could be freely reported. Breaching the gag carries a potential six months in prison.

The Northern Irish courts’ power to continue to legally suppress true information for more than 25 years after the suspect’s death is alarming. There is no justifiable case whatsoever for allowing this, however much one wants to safeguard the sensibilities or self-respect of a person’s granddaughter or great-nephew. 

But that isn’t where the matter ends. The Act criminalises any publication taking place in Northern Ireland: the fact that material is written or produced somewhere else does not matter.

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