All citizens have a responsibility to challenge prejudice in order to ensure Scotland is an inclusive and respectful society. However, criminalising speech is a draconian and ultimately counterproductive means of achieving that aim.
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced in Scottish parliament in April. According to the Scottish government, the bill provides for the "modernising, consolidating and extending of hate crime legislation in Scotland".
The amendments announced so far by the justice secretary will go some way towards protecting free speech on religion in Scotland. But further revisions are still necessary to adequately protect freedom of expression.
The Bill will:
- Create new offences relating to 'stirring up hatred' that will apply in relation to all listed characteristics: age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics. Currently these offences only relate to race. We believe this will unnecessarily threaten freedom of expression and conscience. Existing legislation already protects everyone in Scotland from threatening and abusive behaviour where such behaviour would be likely to cause "fear or alarm". And well-established anti-discrimination laws protect individuals with protected characteristics from discrimination and send the clear signal that such discrimination is unacceptable.
- Criminalise "abusive" in addition to "threatening" behaviour. This poses a serious risk to freedom of expression by promoting the idea that there should be a right not to be offended.
- Fail to protect free speech adequately. The protection of freedom of expression sections in the Bill are substantially weaker than the much more robust equivalent in England and Wales. Free speech provisions in the proposed Bill only protect people from being convicted "solely on the basis" that behaviour or material "involves or includes discussion or criticism of religion or religious practices". Complainants will be likely to argue that speech they dislike is "abusive" and intended to stir up hatred, and that it does not "solely" involve criticism or discussion of religion.
We are concerned these additions to hate crime laws in Scotland will undermine free speech regarding religion or belief.
Some people are so committed to their beliefs that nothing more than a robust assertion that their beliefs are false will be taken as abusive. Therefore, if we wish to apply criminal sanctions to protect people from feeling "abused" when someone criticises or attacks their beliefs, it is obvious that the beliefs themselves as well as the individual who feels insulted or abused are being protected.
People should be protected by law, but beliefs should not.
We welcome the proposal to abolish of the common law offence of blasphemy. Religious ideas should not enjoy privileged legal protection.
However, this long overdue advancement for human rights will be fundamentally undermined by the introduction of vague 'stirring up' of hatred offences, unless more robust freedom of expression protections are put in place.
Please speak out for free speech by writing to your MSPs
Briefing: Scottish Hate Crime Bill (PDF, 216 Kb)