OPINION
Scotland's hate crime bill would stifle free speech

The law could criminalise people making jokes or discussing religion and would do more harm than good

28 Aug 2020
BY RUTH SMEETH

With attacks on free speech occurring across the world from Belarus to Zimbabwe, Xinjiang to Poland, it would be easy to think that our role is to stand up to tyrants and dictators abroad and stand with those who are leading the fight to make sure that they have the right to have their voice heard. And of course, you’d be absolutely right. Index was established to be a voice for the persecuted and to shine a light into the darkness, to give hope to writers, artists and scholars who were and are systematically being silenced. That is our core work and always will be.

But in Stephen Spender’s founding op-ed, in The Times on 15 October 1971, he made it clear that attacks on free speech can have a domestic feel to them too, and Index won’t shy away from challenging censorship wherever we find it. 

“There are problems of censorship in England, the United States, and France, for example. There is the question whether it is not right for certain works to be censored or at any rate limited to a defined readership. The problem of censorship is part of larger ones about the use and abuse of freedom,” wrote Spender. 

Which brings me to new legislation currently working its way through the Scottish Parliament – the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. I don’t believe that our basic rights to free speech and freedom of expression does, or should, give us the right to incite hate or violence. There are always consequences to our actions. But these consequences have to be fair and proportionate and of course in the sphere of free speech not hinder people’s right to engage in debate or to use their voice. There must be no chilling effect.  The proposed legislation does not meet this bar.

The bill directly undermines freedom of expression in Scotland. Artistic expression is challenged and our rights to engage in public debate would be threatened with potential prosecution for “stirring up hatred”.  The legislative language is so vague that someone could be charged with a criminal offence (with a maximum seven-year prison tariff) if an individual’s actions were deemed to be insulting or offensive, with no consideration of the intent behind the action. Comedians could face criminal proceedings for insulting their audiences, commentators for exploring issues of gender or even for discussing religion.

We all want an end to hate speech, we all want to live in a society where people feel safe and secure, but we also want live in a country where our views are respected even when we are in the minority, where debate is welcome and celebrated, and where every one of us can speak without fear or favour.  

If this legislation passes un-amended that will no longer be the case in Scotland and would set an awful precedent for the rest of the UK. Index is opposed to this legislation and will keep working with colleagues in Scotland to get the changes we all need to protect our basic human right to free speech.

Read our letter to the Scottish parliament here contesting the wording of the bill, signed by Rowan Atkinson and other public figures. 

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