Comedian Stephen Fry facing blasphemy investigation in Ireland

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Stephen Fry attends the European premiere of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows at The Empire Leicester Square on December 8, 2011, in London. (Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

Back in 2015, a statement by British comedian Stephen Fry led my Washington Post colleague Abby Ohlheiser to consider whether Fry might be prosecuted for blasphemy:

"Suppose it's all true," began a question to Stephen Fry on Irish television, "and you walk up to the pearly gates and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to Him, Her or It?"

Fry, a beloved actor and comedian in Britain, began his reply like this: "Bone cancer in children? What's that about? How dare you."

Fry is also a humanist.

He continued: "How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?"

When asked whether he believed such a response would get him into heaven, Fry replied that he wasn't interested in going to heaven according to the terms of the sort of God he had just described.

"It's perfectly apparent that he is monstrous," he said. "Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion."…

Ireland … [has] a blasphemy law that comes with the punishment of a potentially massive fine (up to a 25,000 pounds, or roughly $38,000).

But it has an exception for instances where "a reasonable person would find genuine literary, artistic, political, scientific, or academic value in the matter to which the offence relates"—and Ireland has never prosecuted anyone under that law, according to the International Humanist and Ethical Union's annual "Freedom of Thought" report.

Now, the Independent (Ireland) reports that there is indeed a police investigation, triggered by a viewer complaint; the complaint was filed shortly after Fry's interview, but according to the Independent the police have only recently turned to it:

[The complainant said,] "In late 2016 I wrote to the Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan asking if the crime I reported was being followed up—a few weeks later I got a standard 'we have received your letter' from her secretary."

A number of weeks ago the complainant was called by a detective from Donnybrook garda station to say they were looking into the report….

The viewer insisted that he wasn't offended by the remarks but stressed that he believed Mr Fry's comments qualified as blasphemy under the law.

A garda [i.e., Irish police] source said the matter is being investigated.

"A complaint has been received and it is currently being investigated. Detectives will speak to those involved if they are available and a file will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP)."

A well-placed source said it was "highly unlikely" that a prosecution would take place.

A spokesman for Mr Fry said: "[There is] nothing for us to say while this is under investigation."

Atheist Ireland said it welcomed the garda investigation into Mr Fry for blasphemy, saying it "highlights a law that is silly, silencing, and dangerous".

I'm glad to see that the prosecution seems "highly unlikely"; but even the investigations alone—and the existence of the blasphemy law on the books—can be a substantial deterrent, especially to other speakers, who are less prominent than Fry. (Blasphemy laws do indeed get enforced, though rarely, in other European democracies, see, e.g., Poland, Denmark, and, though that case is slightly different, Germany.)