The head of a legal nonprofit specializing in religious freedom cases raised concerns about the scope of proposed Irish legislation that would clamp down on supposed hate speech, warning about the growing impulse of Western governments to restrict free expression.
"What we're seeing is a global trend toward censorship," Alliance for Defending Freedom CEO Kristen Waggoner told The Christian Post in an interview this week, warning that the United States is "not immune to authoritarian impulses."
"And it's not just a disregard for free speech; it's an active targeting to silent speech by the government."
Waggoner expressed particular concern regarding proposed anti-hate speech legislation that the Irish government has renewed efforts to pass after riots roiled Dublin. The unrest came after an Algerian immigrant stabbed three children and a care worker outside a Catholic school last week.
"I think that what we're seeing happening in Ireland is a horrific tragedy and certainly demands that there be targeted government action about the specific issue at hand, but to resort to criminalizing free speech is chilling," she said, adding that she has "many concerns" about it and the impact it will have in Ireland.
The legislation would not only criminalize speech "likely to incite hatred or violence" but also merely possessing material that could. Hatred is broadly defined as "hatred against a person or a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their protected characteristics or any one of those characteristics." Among such characteristics are sexual orientation and "sex characteristics."
The proposal also would mandate that if a judge issues a warrant suspecting such material is on an Irish citizen's device, they must surrender their passwords to authorities under threat of jail.
X CEO Elon Musk blasted the Irish proposal earlier this week, predicting that it would apply even to memes on one's phone. In October, ADF International issued an open letter to Musk urging him to stand in solidarity against government suppression of speech.
Waggoner believes the Irish legislation is part of a more significant global drift away from free speech and pointed to multiple high-profile religious cases ADF International has litigated in recent years.
One such case involved Finnish parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen, whom state prosecutors dragged into court repeatedly over the past four years because of her 2019 tweet that took issue with the Finnish Lutheran Church's promotion of LGBT "pride month" by citing Bible verses.
The government also accused her of hate speech for a pamphlet she wrote nearly 20 years ago arguing that homosexuality is incompatible with "the Christian concept of humanity." The bishop who published the pamphlet was also charged.
Räsänen was acquitted for the second time earlier this month, though prosecutors could potentially appeal to the Supreme Court of Finland.
Waggoner cited the case of Gabriel Quadri, a sitting Mexican congressman who was accused of being a "gender-based political violator" for tweets he made opposing trans-identified men being identified as women when determining the requisite 50/50 gender parity in the Mexican Congress. Former Mexican Congressman Rodrigo Ivan Cortes faces a similar situation.
In a more extreme case, she recalled the imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of the Catholic Diocese of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, who was convicted of "undermining national integrity" and "propagation of false news" because of his sermons denouncing the human rights abuses of the government. He was also convicted of "aggravated obstruction of functions" and "disobedience of contempt for authority."
Alvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison after a trial he was unaware of, ADF International said at the time, noting that there were no effective legal avenues for him in Nicaragua. ADF International has filed petitions in such cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Waggoner said governments opposed to free speech intentionally go after high-profile figures, hoping to intimidate ordinary citizens into self-censorship.
"It sends a strong message to citizens that they should be afraid, and even when a person is acquitted in court for their expression, we know that the average person doesn't want to risk police investigation and a court case like Päivi Räsänen has gone through," she said.
In the United Kingdom, Waggoner said the government has gone so far as to prosecute Christians for praying silently while standing near abortion facilities.
Waggoner worries that the animus against free speech has seeped into the U.S. and that the First Amendment might not necessarily protect it. She noted that all major human rights treaties in Western democracies have protections for free speech, some of which are even stronger than the First Amendment, but that "these written guarantees are only as good as the citizens who enforce them."
"If we allow activists and government officials to censor speech, then the First Amendment means nothing; and when governments do censor speech, they're blurring the line between democracies and dictatorships," Waggoner said.
Based on many of the cases ADF is litigating in the U.S., the flashpoint issues typically involve sexual orientation and gender identity.
Waggoner singled out Tingley v. Ferguson, a case ADF is appealing to the Supreme Court.
In 2021, ADF filed the case on behalf of Brian Tingley, a licensed counselor in Washington state who has practiced for more than 20 years. They argue his practice is jeopardized by a 2018 state law prohibiting private conversations between counselors and minors that would attempt to affirm their biological sex or reduce same-sex attraction.
Similar "conversion therapy" bans exist at least partially in more than 25 other states and the District of Columbia, as well as numerous cities and municipalities, which Waggoner described as an example of "pure censorship."
"It's important to understand that if we don't have that very basic right of free speech, then every other right that we have is imperiled," she added. "It's the cornerstone right. You can't have self-government without it."