Urgent action required: New hate crime laws proposed for Scotland may seriously undermine free speech - including the freedom to criticise or satirise religion. Find out more and help us protect free speech in Scotland.
Our vision for a secular democracy is underpinned by the fundamental human right to free speech. Without this, democracy cannot exist.
We played an instrumental role in abolishing the "blasphemy" and "blasphemous libel" laws in England and Wales in 2008, but equivalent laws remain in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Other threats remain; not least from those who seek to impose their blasphemy taboos on others through violence and intimidation.
Without free speech no search for truth is possible; without free speech no discovery of truth is useful; without free speech progress is checked… Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.
What's the problem?
Laws prohibiting blasphemy remain on the statute books in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. While blasphemy is no longer explicitly outlawed in England and Wales, free speech is still threatened. One of the major concerns we have is over 'backdoor' blasphemy codes which conflate hate speech and criticism of religion, making satire, criticism or mockery a criminal act akin to racial hatred or inciting violence.
We are further concerned by a developing 'culture of offence' in which any speech or action deemed likely to offend religious sensibilities is considered taboo. This is chilling free speech, leading to self-censorship, enforced by a toxic mix of terrorism and religious deference.
Being offended from time to time is the price we all pay for living in a free society. Rather than trying to silence those we disagree with, we believe the answer to speech we don't like is more speech. We therefore campaign to protect and preserve freedom of expression, including offensive, critical and shocking speech.
Freedom of expression around the world
Around the world blasphemy laws continue to be used to target religious and political minorities, particularly in Islamic theocracies. These are sometimes described as 'misuse of blasphemy laws', but the NSS contends that there are never any legitimate uses for blasphemy laws.
What are we doing?
We continue to monitor cases where freedom of expression is under threat from religion and to take appropriate action.
Some of our milestones and victories:
- We were instrumental in the repeal of blasphemy laws in England and Wales in 2008, and continue to campaign against blasphemy laws around the world, including 'backdoor' blasphemy codes that restrict the criticism or mockery of religion.
- We are opposing efforts to define 'Islamophobia' as "a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness" on the basis that it has negative consequences for free speech.
- We are campaigning for Nigerian humanist Mubarak Bala to be safely released, following his arrest for 'blasphemy'.
- We welcomed Irish voters' decision to repeal the blasphemy provisions in their country's constitution in 2018 and have called for blasphemy laws in Northern Ireland to also be repealed.
- We welcomed the Scottish government's proposal to abolish its blasphemy law in 2020.
- We are a founding member of the Defend Free Speech Campaign. Together with a coalition of other free speech advocates we work to ensure efforts to combat extremism do not come at the expense of our right to free speech.
- In 2005-6, the NSS campaigned against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill and the Government's attempts to substantially lower the prosecution threshold for incitement to religious hatred. We campaigned in parliament for freedom of speech safeguards and for intent to be a necessary component of the offence.
The Bill was eventually defeated. This was the Government's third attempt in five years to introduce these measures.
- We have repeatedly drawn attention to the adherence of major media outlets, including the BBC and Channel 4, to Islamic blasphemy codes. Events have forced these issues into mainstream discussion, yet there is still significant reticence within the media to begin undoing the damage caused by the media-enforced 'taboo' of depicting certain forms of religious imagery (including satire).
- In December 2017 we submitted evidence to a Joint Committee on Human Rights consultation on freedom of speech in universities. We said that "We have received growing concerns over efforts to silence at universities voices which are critical of religion. At the same time legitimate concerns are being raised about extremist speakers on campus. Against this there are two competing sensationalised media narratives; the first that ordinary student activism/protest/governance is part of a broad 'politically correct' attack on free speech, the second that efforts to challenge extremism are a front to restrict dissident speech."
News stories relating to our campaign for free expression can be found here.
What you can do
Take Action: protect free speech in Scotland
New hate crime laws proposed for Scotland may seriously undermine free speech - including the freedom to criticise or satirise religion. Find out more and help us protect free speech in Scotland.
While you're here
Please consider a donation to enable us to continue challenging religious threats to free expression.