Hate Crime Bill a ‘serious threat to free speech’, warns new campaign
The Scottish Government’s hate crime proposals pose a “serious threat” to free speech and must be amended by MSPs, a new campaign warns today.
Free to Disagree, a broad campaign supported by SNP veteran Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, The Christian Institute, and criminologist Dr Stuart Waiton marked its official launch this morning, Friday 17 July.
The campaign opposes ‘stirring up of hatred offences’ in Part 2 of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. These would make “abusive behaviour” deemed “likely to stir up hatred” a criminal offence.
It argues that the “vague and subjective” proposals could see legitimate speech criminalised if it is merely considered offensive in the current political climate. Journalists, playwrights and academics, as well as members of the public, could find themselves in the dock.
Free to Disagree calls for the draft offences to be scrapped or amended to protect freedom of expression. The campaign’s website (www.freetodisagree.scot) states:
“We believe that free speech is a vital right that should only be limited by the state when it has strong grounds for doing so. It must include the ability for citizens to discuss, criticise, and refute ideas, beliefs and practices in robust terms. This may result in some people being offended, but there is no right not to be offended.
“The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill could criminalise speech merely because it is deemed offensive to certain people. It’s proposed new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences would curb free speech and have a chilling effect on debate over certain issues. This campaign was founded to stop this from happening.”
Speaking ahead of the campaign launch Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader of the SNP, said:
“In primary 7 something my teacher, Mr. Allan, said had a great influence on me. It was about how the onset of tolerance, the willingness to accept the right of others to have different opinions, had made us a freer and therefore a better society.
“He would be astonished today, to witness the assault on free speech that is the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill. Freedom of thought, articulated by one’s speech, is so fundamental to the civic and intellectual life of our nation that any attempt by the government to restrict that freedom has to be robustly opposed.”
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive of the National Secular Society, said:
“The National Secular Society has joined the Free to Disagree campaign to reassert the importance of protecting freedom of expression and open, robust dialogue. We hope this alliance will encourage ministers to look again at their ill-conceived proposals on hate crime and amend them accordingly.
“Freedom of expression is such a fundamental right that it’s imperative for governments to tread carefully in this area. However well-intentioned, the legislation as drafted is excessive, vague and seriously risks chilling free speech. Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”
Dr Stuart Waiton, a criminologist at Abertay University, said:
“At a time when all serious studies suggest Scotland is a more tolerant nation than it has ever been, it is worrying that our political elites seem determined to paint a picture of hatred and abuse running like wildfire through our communities.
“The more tolerant people become, it seems, the more intolerant our politicians become and the more laws we have to criminalise people for words and even thoughts that are labelled as unacceptable. This proposed hate crime bill is potentially the greatest threat to-date to what should be a free and tolerant society.”
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director for Public Affairs at The Christian Institute, said:
“We’re delighted to be joining forces again with friends from across the political and philosophical spectrum to stand up for freedom of speech. As many others have said, the best antidote to bad speech is good speech. In the current hyper-sensitive political climate, it is vital that politicians don’t add fuel to the fire by legislating badly-drafted speech laws that will cause further division, while doing nothing to help real victims of crime.”.
Jamie Gillies, a campaigner and spokesman for Free to Disagree, said:
“In bringing forward the Hate Crime Bill, the Government has rightly identified that hatred and prejudice are wrong. However, strong laws already exist to punish offences aggravated by prejudice. The new offences are vague and subjective. They pose a serious risk to free speech on a range of issues.
“Passing the Bill in its current form would divorce Scotland from its proud free speech heritage and undermine freedoms that were centuries in the making. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. MSPs must hold the Government to account and protect free speech.”
Free to Disagree identifies five specific problems with the draft offences:
1 The term ‘hatred’ is subjective and difficult to define, especially when it relates to hatred being ‘stirred up’ in other people. How can police, prosecutors and judges know this? They cannot make windows into people’s souls. The criminal law should focus on concepts that are demonstrable and easily defined.
2 People can commit a stirring up hatred offence without intending to do so, and without actually having done so, if the court feels their actions were merely ‘likely’ to stir up hatred. This lack of mens rea – mental culpability – drastically widens the reach of the offence.
3 Public order laws like these would normally include a defence for words spoken in the privacy of your own home and not heard or seen by anyone outside. The Hate Crime Bill contains no such defence, making it possible for people to be prosecuted over remarks made at the dinner table.
4 The proposed stirring up hatred offences would criminalise ‘threatening or abusive’ behaviour deemed ‘likely’ to stir up hatred. While threatening behaviour is wrong and clearly understood in case law, the term ‘abusive’ is vague and open to interpretation – especially in the absence of mens rea, or any objective definition of hatred.
5 Free speech provisions in the Bill only protect the ‘discussion or criticism’ of religion and sexual orientation. While the presence of any free speech clause is welcome, these apply to just two grounds and only go so far. The terms ‘discussion’ and ‘criticism’ are academic. There is a risk this would not protect forthright speech and debate by ordinary people on contentious issues like religious belief and morality.
The Scottish Parliament has issued a call for views on the proposals that closes next Friday, 24 July 2020. Commenting on the call for views, Mr Gillies added:
“It’s vital that the public make their voices heard on these proposals. If the Bill passes in its present form, ordinary Scots could see themselves in the firing line. The truth can hold its own in the marketplace of ideas and society does best when free speech is enabled. Let’s urge parliamentarians to defend it.”
Notes for Editors
The Free to Disagree campaign is supported by:
- Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party;
- The National Secular Society;
- The Christian Institute;
- Dr Stuart Waiton, criminologist, Abertay University.
For more information visit: www.freetodisagree.scot
Issued on behalf of Free to Disagree by Tom Hamilton Communications. For media enquiries, contact:
Tel: 0141 639 8355
Mob: 07836 603977