Civil liberties group warns of ‘chilling’ censorship of political art

The new ICCL mural
The new ICCL mural

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has warned that the censorship of political art concerning the abortion referendum is having a “chilling effect”.

The group, which backs a Yes vote in the referendum, this morning unveiled its own mural on the Eighth Amendment, just weeks after the removal of a similar mural from the wall of the Project Arts Centre at the behest of the Charities Regulator.

It highlighted the cancellation of Una Mullally’s “Question of the Eighth” event at the International Literature Festival as another example of censorship, as well as reports that some arts organisations and exhibition spaces have withdrawn invitations to Grace Dyas and Emma Fraser to show a theatre piece about abortion.

The ICCL has said the use of the Charities Act 2009 to censor artistic expression that would be acceptable to the regulator outside of a referendum period is an “inappropriate use” of that legislation.

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick said: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in any free society and artistic freedom must be afforded the highest protection. The role of the artist in challenging power and orthodoxy is the very lifeblood of our cultural life.

“Irish Constitutional case law and the case law of the European Court of Human Rights make clear that the State’s obligation to ensure freedom of ‘political’ expression is more important than ever during an election period. As a result, the censoring of artistic expression containing ‘political’ content during a referendum period, where that content and discussion of it would ordinarily be acceptable to a State body because it is integral to the art is highly questionable from a legal perspective.

“Furthermore, while it is necessary to regulate spending and funding during elections to protect the integrity of our democracy, under the Irish Constitution, freedom of speech is not equivalent to freedom to buy advertising or column inches.”

Mr Herrick also set out the ICCL’s view on McKenna v. An Taoiseach (No. 2) 2 I.R. 10, in which the Supreme Court ruled that public money could not be sepent on referendum campaigning.

He said: “In our view, the McKenna decision outlaws the use of public funds to support the Government’s own campaign for a Yes or No vote.

“This is not the same as using public funds to support free discussion of artistic work containing ‘political’ ideas that are relevant to a referendum. We maintain that ‘neutrality’ is not achieved by censorship of artistic expression and the discussion inspired by it.

“Rather, ‘neutrality’ can be achieved by ensuring that the selection criteria for exhibitions and events are non-discriminating, that such exhibitions and events are open to the public, and that support for further artistic expression containing ‘political’ ideas is made available.”