Hate Crime Bill a ‘threat to free speech’ – councillors

Local politicians strongly oppose the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill with almost 7 in 10 believing it “threatens free speech”, a survey suggests.

The Free to Disagree campaign asked councillors across Scotland for their views on free speech and the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.

Around 14 per cent of all Scotland’s councillors (176/1,227) responded. Of this number:

  • 2 in 3 expressed opposition to the bill;
  • 8 in 10 said the bill is “controversial”;
  • 7 in 10 said it “threatens free speech”.
Opposition by party

Opposition to the bill was significant across party lines with a majority of Conservative and Independent councillors and half of Labour and Lib Dem councillors expressing opposition to the plans. Strikingly, less than half of SNP councillors expressed support for the bill and 1 in 4 expressed opposition.

Q. Do you support the Hate Crime Bill?
PartySupportOpposeUnsureNo answer
Lib Dem17%50%33%0%

Free to Disagree comment

Commenting on the survey, Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies said:

“Local councillors, like others across Scotland, are highly critical of the government’s hate crime plans. Regardless of their individual party affiliation, they’re aware of the threat posed by the new stirring up of hatred offences.

“All of us support efforts to help victims. Every citizen in Scotland has the right to be protected from violence, intimidation and abuse. However, it has not been shown how these specific proposals would reduce crimes motivated by hatred. At the same time, numerous experts across Scottish society are warning of their potential to erode other vital rights like freedom of speech.

“With more public figures speaking out every day pressure is mounting on the government to act. By withdrawing the ‘stirring up’ provisions ahead of Stage 1 scrutiny Ministers could put public anxiety to bed and build consensus around other non-contentious elements of the bill. We call on them to do so.”

Summary of overall responses
Opposition to the Hate Crime Bill

Asked whether or not they “support the Hate Crime Bill”, two thirds of councillors who responded expressed opposition (64% said they were opposed, and 2% said they were opposed to the bill in its current form).

More than 8 in 10 felt that the bill is “controversial” and almost 7 in 10 said it “threatens free speech”.

‘Stirring up’ offences

Councillors also expressed strong opposition to key aspects of contentious ‘stirring up’ provisions in Part 2 of the bill.

More than 7 in 10 agreed that for an “offence under the Hate Crime Bill to be committed, there should be a proven intention to stir up hatred”. At present, the provisions do not require any ‘intent’ on the part of the offender.

Almost 9 in 10 councillors also agreed that “the term ‘hatred’ means different things to different people”. In recent months, many critics have said that the vague language in Part 2, including the term ‘hatred’, could create too low a threshold for offending.

Support for free speech

The survey found broad support for free speech, with almost 100 per cent of respondents agreeing that it is an “important right”, and the same percentage agreeing that disagreement and debate “benefit society”.

More than 8 in 10 councillors agreed that “people today are too quick to shut down debate” and more than 9 in 10 thought that disagreement with someone else’s views is not a sign of hatred.

Public opposition

poll of Scottish adults published by Free to Disagree last month revealed wide support for free speech and opposition to the hate crime plans.

The Savanta ComRes poll of 1,008 Scottish adults found that almost 9 in 10 (87%) think free speech is an “important right”, 6 in 10 (63%) think disagreement and debate “benefit society” and 3 in 4 (73%) think disagreement is not a sign of hatred.

More than 6 in 10 respondents (64%) voiced support for a classical approach to free speech where “words that incite violence” are criminalised, whereas just 29% said the law should criminalise ‘offensive’ words. More than 6 in 10 (64%) respondents agreed that people today are “too quick to shut down debate”.

A significant number of respondents also expressed opposition to elements that form the basis of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill:

  • 7 in 10 (69%) of Scots agreed that “For a criminal offence to be committed, there must be a proven intention to stir up hatred”.
  • 3 in 4 (75%) said that the term ‘hatred’ “means different things to different people”.
  • While many are uncertain about the specifics of the bill, more than 4 in 10 respondents (41%) agreed that a clause should be included in the bill to protect the freedom to publicly disagree with trans rights, with just 21% disagreeing.

The ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in Part 2 of the bill do not require ‘intent’ for an offence to be committed or include a free speech clause on trans. The wording of the draft legislation, including the term ‘hatred’, has also been criticised for being vague and open to abuse.

Notes for Editors

An Excel spreadsheet of survey data can be downloaded here.


Jamie Gillies, spokesman for Free to Disagree


07761 506 732

Issued on behalf of Free to Disagree by: Tom Hamilton Communications


07836 603 977