Stephen Evans, CEO of the National Secular Society
Freedom of expression is a fundamental building block of a free society. It drives inclusivity, equality and tolerance – values that are at the heart of Scottish politics and culture and values that the National Secular Society is proud to have consistently championed.
Of course, that is not to say we should turn a blind eye to threatening language or that which incites violence. Such behaviour should be called out for what it is and be dealt with appropriately. Thankfully, this is already the case under Scottish law. However, under current plans the Scottish Government is looking to go beyond this, and the measures it is proposing should give all who cherish a free and open society reason to be worried.
We do not doubt the Scottish Government’s positive intentions in bringing forward the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. But the ambition to introduce new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences – with dangerously low thresholds for prosecution – needs to be fully scrutinised and resisted.
“Freedom of expression is a fundamental building block of a free society”
The vague concept of ‘stirring up hatred’ against a group of persons based on the group’s characteristics would effectively open the door to criminalising robust speech and arguments that others find offensive. This is a draconian measure that will stifle the criticism and discussion of ideas, beliefs and practices and shut down necessary debate. Implementing measures to criminalise “abusive” words moves the policing of speech away from the realm of the easily definable, that should rightly be targeted, and into the much more subjective territory of what causes offence to particular individuals. This will particularly benefit those whose ideas and views do not stand up to argument and investigation.
We should all be protected from threats and harassment. But no one should have the right simply to not be offended. This should be the guiding principle in defending freedom of expression, yet this is precisely the path the Scottish Government’s latest legislation, as it currently stands, will take us away from.
What’s more, under the proposed new law, people can commit a ‘stirring up hatred’ offence without even intending to do so, and without the prosecution having to show that their actions had any impact. All a court must decide is that their words were “threatening or abusive” and “likely” or intended to “stir up hatred”.
“We should all be protected from threats and harassment. But no one should have the right simply to not be offended”
Scotland already has robust legislation in place to keep individuals properly protected from discrimination and threatening behaviour likely to “cause a reasonable person to suffer fear or alarm”. Promoting societal harmony and ensuring that existing legislation is properly enforced must be the priority, rather than introducing new measures that will merely make it harder to express unpopular viewpoints and reinforce divisions.
It is with this in mind that the National Secular Society is proud to join the Free to Disagree campaign – to reassert the importance of protecting free speech and freedom of expression in the face of misguided attempts to close down debate and discussion. The supporters of Free to Disagree fundamentally disagree with each other on many issues, but we agree on the importance of protecting free speech.
We all have a responsibility to challenge prejudice in order to ensure our society is inclusive and respectful. Being conscious of others and their beliefs is all part of constructive and civilised discourse. Civil society should absolutely push back when people choose to say hateful or disrespectful things. But we should also encourage open and robust public discussion, and we shouldn’t look to the law to clamp down on unsavoury sentiments.
“The supporters of Free to Disagree fundamentally disagree with each other on many issues, but we agree on the importance of protecting free speech”
Divergent and opposing views should be heard and debated publicly. But ‘stirring up hatred’ laws will enable the weaponisation of taking offence, undermining and limiting debate on the contentious issues that matter to people across Scotland. Disempowering ordinary people by restricting their freedom of expression is likely to antagonise, rather than create social harmony.
It is for this reason that Free to Disagree is campaigning to urge the Scottish Government to reconsider its proposals and stop the erosion of important and historic freedom of speech rights.
To find out more about the Free to Disagree campaign and how you can get involved, please go to www.freetodisagree.scot