Women who speak out on trans issues could find themselves accused of ‘stirring up hatred’ under contentious hate crime proposals, MSPs have heard.
During a parliamentary evidence session this afternoon, Policy analysis collective Murray Blackburn Mackenzie (MBM) raised particular concerns over the inclusion of a ‘stirring up hatred’ offence on transgender identity.
Lucy Hunter Blackburn, a former senior civil servant and founding member of MBM, warned Justice Committee MSPs that the offence could catch speech and writing on transgender issues that falls far below the threshold for an offence:
“If you look at the sorts of things that are deemed hateful and transphobic it’s problematic…The kind of things that are positioned as hateful statements are very different in their nature”.
“It’s far from clear that there’s anything like a public consensus on what constitutes hate on the grounds of transgender identity”.
“I would strongly suggest the answer to that lack of social consensus is you don’t legislate”.
She pointed to an allegation last year by Patrick Harvie MSP that the Scottish Parliament had been used as a “platform for transphobic hatred”, after a group was invited to talk to MSPs about women’s sex-based rights.
And she recounted MBM’s experience of publishing an academic paper on women’s rights. Edinburgh University Press tried to prevent publication of the paper on the grounds that the use of the term ‘woman’ excluded transgender women.
If the Hate Crime Bill been in place at the time, she said, the publisher could have had the legislation “trailed in front of them” in order to prevent publication of MBM’s work.
Asked if the hate crime proposals could lead to ‘self-censorship’, she agreed, saying: “It’s not just about legislating for the very small number of people…It’s the long shadow that this law is going to cast as people worry about investigation…being contacted by the police”.
Jamie Gillies, spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, commented:
“Lucy Hunter Blackburn has articulated a widely-expressed fear that the Hate Crime Bill could place a chill on speech concerning contentious issues. The current, forthright debate on transgender and women’s rights is a prime example of where problems could arise.
“In order to avoid an unintended infringement of free expression, MSPs must overhaul the vague language of the bill. The term ‘abusive’ is too subjective. Mainstream commentators like J.K. Rowling have recently been labelled ‘abusive’ for speaking out on trans issues in an entirely respectful manner.
“The term ‘inflammatory’ is also problematic. Some have questioned whether religious texts and books by feminists that focus on gender could be framed as ‘hateful’ and ‘inflammatory’ under the terms of the bill.
“These problems are compounded by the fact that free speech protections only permit ‘discussion and criticism’ of certain ideas. These must be reworded to make clear that citizens are free to discuss, criticise, and refute ideas, beliefs and practices in strong terms.
“We appeal to MSPs of all parties to support further, crucial changes to the bill in the months ahead.”