Roshika Perera considers the potential implications of the proposed Hate Crime bill on our freedom of speech.
Recently, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf gave another statement to the Scottish parliament outlining changes that would be made to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. The bill was met with outrage by swathes of the media and the public who expressed concerns around the implications it would have on free speech. Under the proposed changes, intent to stir up hatred will include “behaving in a threatening or abusive manner’’ and ‘‘possessing inflammatory material’’. These could be prosecuted as criminal offences with up to seven years in prison. Perhaps the most controversial element of the bill is its extension into the private homes of citizens, with Yousaf stating that ‘‘conversations over the dinner table that incite hatred must be prosecuted under Scotland’s new hate-crime law’’.
Under current UK laws, it is illegal to discriminate based on disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity, and criminal courts can consider any prejudicial behaviour when handing out sentences. The new bill is an attempt to be tougher on hate crimes which have been on the rise, with Glasgow having recorded a 24% annual increase in religiously aggravated crimes. While the bill has been praised by organisations such as Victim Support Scotland, Yousaf has come under fire for disregarding the bill’s implications on free speech. However, to Yousaf’s credit, he has engaged in dialogue with organisations such as Humanist Society of Scotland and subsequently amended the bill to clarify that the new offence will only apply to cases where intent to stir up hatred is proven. Yet, on the prosecution of speech in private settings, he remains firm, asking on Twitter why hate speech can be prosecuted “down the pub but not in your house”.
The diversity of voices that have spoken out against this bill should answer Yousaf’s own question. Comedians, civil liberties activists, LGBTQ+ activists, actors, and religious groups including the Catholic church, the Church of Scotland, and the Muslim Engagement and Development organisation have voiced concerns over the unique ways this bill would impact their lives. In a democratic society such as Scotland’s, such a diverse array of voices, many of which hold opposing beliefs to each other can co-exist, while still being able to practice those beliefs in private. This bill would undermine that freedom, most crucially among religious communities. The Christian Institute stated: “Provisions on ‘inflammatory material’ could be used against Christian books, sermons by church ministers – even the Bible itself. The potential reach of the offences is enormous, affecting religious practice in public and in private.”
Beyond the risks to religious freedom, the bill will impose limits on those in the arts, journalism, literature and comedy, professions that are tasked with pushing the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable in society. An open letter signed by 20 organisations and individuals in these industries, including comedian Rowan Atkinson, have voiced concerns over the unintended consequences of the bill. It rightly points out: “The arts play a key part in shaping Scotland’s identity in addition to being a significant economic contributor. The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious, and other must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish.”
This bill raises crucial questions that remain unanswered. For instance, legal experts who spoke in front of the Holyrood’s Justice Committee have voiced concerns over the vague language of the bill. Among them, Ruddy Dunlop raised the issue of placing “insults” in the same category of offence as threatening or abusive behaviours: “All sorts of people are capable of being insulted by all sorts of things whereas something is either threatening or it’s not – that’s quintessentially objective”. Another frightening prospect is how free speech would be legislated inside households. Peter Tatchell, a human rights campaigner, was another prominent figure to critique the bill, stating: ‘‘Dealing with vexatious complaints and hurt feelings should not be part of Police Scotland’s remit.” 2020 has been a year where relations between the public and the police have been vexatious, from protests around police brutality to complaints about excessive police force being used to enforce Covid regulations. This bill would not help ease tensions.
The rise in hate crimes should be addressed, but not by undermining democratic principles. This bill has drawn many comparisons with Orwell’s 1984 dystopia that features a “thought police” that monitors homes and a protagonist engulfed by the fear of committing “thought crimes”. However, the destruction of lives and relationships as a result of government overreach inside households is a reality written into the history of many authoritarian regimes including Chairman Mao’s China, detailed in Jung Chang’s biography Wild Swans. While many aspects of the new Hate Crime bill are welcomed by most, especially the victims of hate crimes, its reach into private settings is a step too far.