The SNP introduced Scotland’s hate crime bill to consolidate existing laws, yet it has extended the law’s reach to a point where free speech is in serious jeopardy.
Although the government claims the bill will provide “greater clarity, transparency and consistency” by bringing most of Scotland’s hate crime legislation into one statute, the vagueness of “stirring up hatred” against listed characteristics leaves the law open to interpretation – and exploitation.
The Bill states it is an offence for a person to behave in a threatening, abusive or insulting manner, or to communicate threatening, abusive or insulting material to another person when, in doing so, the person intends to stir up hatred – or it is deemed likely that hatred will be stirred up – against an individual or group due to their race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origin. This sets a dangerous precedence.
Firstly, it dictates what can be said in one’s own home. The Public Order Act 1986 included an exemption for words and actions inside a “dwelling”, yet the SNP felt it was necessary to restrict free speech further.
There have been almost 2000 submissions criticising the bill, more than for any other proposed law since Scottish parliament opened in 1999. In response, the government modified the bill so that one could only be prosecuted for intending to stir up hatred, however this still leaves the law very vague and difficult to interpret.
The government has failed to explain how to determine whether someone has stirred up hatred, or indeed how to find out whether they intended to or not. As Jamie Gillies argued, “the term ‘hatred’ is malleable. It means very different things to different people.”
If we use the English penalty failure as an example, the three who missed happened to be classed as minorities. Was the criticism directed towards them because of their race or their inability to put the ball in the net? If the answer is not clear, then the law should not exist.
Another football example is the irony of the Scottish crying “we all hate the English” which directly breaks the law by encouraging hatred of a nationality. At the epitome of Scottish hypocrisy, there is no evidence of a football fan has been punished for this, demonstrating the lack of solid enforcement of the law due to the difficulty in interpreting the law.
The Scottish have a complete right to say they hate the English – Nicola Sturgeon actively encourages a distrust of those south of the border – but the fact it is technically illegal is ludicrous. Meanwhile, those such as J.K. Rowling, who has argued that trans rights have a negative impact on women (partly due to her experience of domestic abuse and sexual assault) could face up to seven years prison sentence for merely expressing a view.
By directly attacking free speech, the Scottish government discourages open discussions about the oppression of groups with the characteristics listed in the bill, and instead enforces silence.
The idea the state should control the speech of every single person even in their own home, is a worrying political phenomenon which will inevitably lead to a dangerous increase in the government’s power. Instead of enforcing such a flawed law, there should be greater debate and education on disadvantaged groups and the prejudice against them. This will challenge bigoted views and lead to a more tolerant society with freedoms still intact.