Standing up for freedom of speech

Professor David Nash

As a leading authority on the history of blasphemy laws, Professor David Nash has used his expertise to make a profound difference to people’s daily lives. His in-depth research and advocacy led to the repeal in 2018 of Ireland’s law on blasphemy - a form of censorship which prevented religion from being discussed openly.

The impact of the law’s repeal has been far-reaching. As a result, people in Ireland have been able to speak freely and to express their non-religious views through broadcasting, writing, artistic expression and other ways. The repeal also allayed global concerns that the modern blasphemy law in Ireland could potentially set a dangerous precedent for other countries around the world. The law only came into force in 2009 due to requirements in the 1937 Constitution. 

Influencing the debate

David’s involvement in the repeal process goes back to 2013 when he was invited to address the Irish Constitutional Convention in Dublin on the case for repealing the law on blasphemy. (He had already worked with Ireland’s NGOs who had been raising their concerns on the new blasphemy legislation since 2008.) Bringing together politicians, experts and others as a collective voice to influence government thinking, the Convention voted in favour of removing the law.

David’s expertise was also sought by the European Union. In 2015, as a senior academic advisor, he contributed to an EU report which set out a European legal framework on ‘hate speech, blasphemy and its interaction with freedom of expression.’ David was invited to submit his own independent report to Ireland’s Department for Justice and Equality as a result of this work. 

Arguing the need for change

Alongside his contributions to EU and government debates, David became a powerful advocate on TV, radio and in the press, for repealing the blasphemy law. His regular appearances included an interview on Sky TV in 2017 when celebrity Stephen Fry became the subject of a formal complaint following an RTE television interview in which he mentioned the 2009 blasphemy law.

Once the Irish Government had decided to stage a referendum on a repeal, David worked closely with the Department of Justice and Equality on the wording of the ballot paper and spoke at the launch event of the campaign for repeal.

In the run-up to the vote, which took place in October 2018, he appeared extensively in the media including BBC Radio 4, Newstalk Radio Dublin, BBC Radio Ulster and well as television in Germany and Austria.

The resulting majority vote led to repeal of the law and the final removal of the mention of blasphemy from the Irish Constitution where it had been since 1937.

Check papers and pen

“Throughout we have been conscious that the power of [Nash's] credentials, academic knowledge and expertise in the area of blasphemy in the past and present has been taken immensely seriously by the Irish Government. In no small measure this has contributed to our eventual success in achieving a victorious ‘yes’ vote.”

Atheist Ireland

Recognition of impact

Polling station

Following the result, one of the key organisations with whom David had worked, Atheist Ireland, wrote to him acknowledging the key role that he had played. ‘Throughout we have been conscious that the power of your credentials, academic knowledge and expertise in the area of blasphemy in the past and present has been taken immensely seriously by the Irish Government. In no small measure this has contributed to our eventual success in achieving a victorious ‘yes’ vote’.

As an influential research academic and passionate advocate of freedom of speech, David’s expertise has been instrumental in giving people in Ireland the opportunity to speak freely about religious matters. Alongside this, the 2009 blasphemy law no longer looms as a dangerous precedent to other countries who may wish to initiate or reactivate their own blasphemy laws - potentially affecting the freedoms and wellbeing of countless numbers of people around the world. 

Image credits:

Candle - Photo by Gadiel Lazcano on Unsplash
Papers - Photo by Freepik
Polling station - Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

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