Published on 9 May 2017 in Blasphemy news

Stephen Fry blasphemy probe in Ireland is dropped – may lead to abolition of New Zealand’s law!

That was quick!

Even as the world responded to news that Stephen Fry was being investigated for “blasphemy” in Ireland yesterday, the Gardaí (Irish police) decided to drop the probe because they couldn’t find a large enough group of people outraged by the comments.

Meanwhile, the coverage apparently alerted senior officials in New Zealand to the existence of their own “blasphemy” law, and the prime minister then pledged to abolish it!

A bit of Fry and sorry

Stephen Fry with comedy partner Hugh Laurie in sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie

Introduced by then-Justice Minister Dermot Ahern as late as 2009, against the tide of abolition in developed countries, the Irish ‘blasphemy’ law criminalizes publication and other expressions that are “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion”.

The “blasphemy” probe was initiated in response to a single police complaint about a TV interview in 2015, in which Fry said that God was “stupid”.

A source told the Irish Independent yesterday that the complainant against Fry was “a witness and not an injured party”, and so with no substantial number of people offended the investigation would be dropped.

Of course, this leaves open the possibility of a future case in which the complainant does claim to be offended themselves, or where there is more evidence of public “outrage”. But for now, it looks like neither Stephen Fry nor the public service broadcaster RTÉ will be made to pay up (the maximum fine for “blasphemy” in Ireland is €25,000).

New Zealand gets sight of the discord

On the other side of the world, the prime minister of New Zealand Bill English, as well as the Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson, both apparently discovered for the first time that the country still had a “blasphemy” law, and English said he would work to repeal it.

New Zealand’s Religious Libel law, section 123 of the Crimes Act 1961, criminalizes “blasphemous libel” with a maximum sentence of one year. There is no record of a successful prosecution under this law, but it remains on the books and humanists in New Zealand have been actively seeking to repeal the law.

Prime Minister English is quoted by as saying on Monday that he did not previously know the blasphemy laws existed, but “we could get rid of them. … Laws that overreach on addressing robust speech are not a good idea.”

Another politician, David Seymour of the ACT party said the unenforced law was “arbitrary” and: “That creates a situation where some people in authority can choose to enforce the law at their discretion.” He floated the introduction of a private members’ bill as a possible route to repealing the law.

Archbishop Richardson, too, said he saw no point to the law. “My view is, God’s bigger than needing to be defended by the Crimes Act.”

Citing the Fry case, the Humanist Society of New Zealand (a partner in the End Blasphemy Laws campaign) today renewed its calls to repeal country’s “outdated blasphemy law.” Sara Passmore, president of the Humanist Society, said:

“New Zealand has to abolish its blasphemy law before it is used to censor, suppress, and silence public debate. We want to increase social cohesion and understanding, and by protecting one set of ideas from critique we are closing the door on free speech, free inquiry and public debate.

“This investigation into a TV interview with Stephen Fry is evidence that blasphemy laws restrict free speech and have no place in our society. Countries around the world are repealing blasphemy laws and it is time New Zealand followed the international trend. And now that the investigation has been dropped because the Irish police have failed to find ‘enough outraged people’ it is clear that any blasphemy law has no place in modern society.”