Offensive Speech – a letter to The Herald

This letter appeared in The Herald on Monday 14 June.


Adam Tomkins’ first column for The Herald (Free speech matters – even when it’s offensive) made for interesting reading.

I agree with his assessment of censoriousness on university campuses and the need for this to be tackled. As he notes: “Free speech can make us uncomfortable, irritated, even outraged. But that is its very point. The hallmark of a free society is where, instead of trying to silence our opponents, we engage with them.” Universities and other institutions must always err on the side of more speech, not less.

Recent events on university campuses in Scotland are an affront to the proud free speech tradition our country is famous for. If censoriousness continues to take hold, this will be damaging not only to institutions but to society at large. We may be denied the positive changes that result from robust, open debate and free inquiry in places of learning.

I would, however, question Tomkins’ assessment of the Hate Crime Act. The professor states that this legislation “got the law of free speech right”, adding: “It does not criminalise offensive speech, but it does make it an offence to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred.”

Certainly major improvements were made during the passage of the Act and the Free to Disagree campaign played a role in that process. But, given that the law has not yet come into force, it remains to be seen whether the Hate Crime Act will be enforced fairly, or if it will improperly undermine freedom of expression. Even with the threshold of ‘intention’, there are questions over the understanding of terms such as ‘abusive’ and ‘hatred’.

Tomkins does recognise that “bogus complaints” will be made under the new law. This is important. Because even if few actual prosecutions occur, vexatious reporting will be problematic for the police and deeply stressful for individuals who are investigated. This is why so many people opposed the creation of new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences in the Hate Crime Act. It plays into the hands of the censorious people whom Tomkins rightly criticises.

Scotland must remain alert to the potential dangers of the new stirring up offences. If the legislation ends up damaging civil liberties, it should be overhauled or scrapped.


Jamie Gillies

Free to Disagree campaign

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