Free Speech or the Hate Crime Bill: You Can’t Have Both!

I am conscious that to draw upon it may be to fall victim to argumentum ad populum but the sheer number and variety of people lining up against the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is staggering.

When you can bring together Rowan Atkinson, Val McDermid, the Police, the Catholic Church, National Secular Society, as well as Labour and the Tories, in raising staunch opposition then there’s probably something to it.

At that point, one faces a choice; either this incredibly broad and diverse cabal has come together to ensure that bigotry in Scotland continues unimpeded or, as is surely far more likely, the Hate Crime Bill poses a real and genuine threat to freedom of speech in Scotland.

This risk could not come at a worse time. We are, of course, the country that brought a prosecution against a fairly generic internet troll who taught his girlfriend’s dog to do a Nazi salute and, in doing so, did little but turn him into a darling of the crankier bit of the internet.

We also tried to address violence at football games, a legitimate concern, by going after the soundtrack rather than the actors, which only resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Scottish Governments and a problem still unsolved.

Perhaps there is room for comfort in the fact that while there seem to be significant efforts to curtail freedom of expression in Scotland, those who are pushing for them seem to be pretty inept.

It should be made clear; the Hate Crime Bill is a horror show of a Bill.

It’s full of vagaries, imprecision, overreach, and a lack of detail, purpose, and consideration that its opposition, both political and civil, have done a brilliant job at pointing out.

Those who have gone through it have also pointed out that it has the potential to undermine trust in the Police, prevent actors portraying unpleasant characters on stage, and other dire consequences, over and above the limits it would place on freedom of speech – particularly the right to be insulting.

Unsurprisingly, Humza Yousaf, Nicola Sturgeon’s bullish and strident Justice Secretary, has, as is his political character, held firm and refused to give an inch.

Mr Yousaf has argued that the objectors to the Bill largely comprise of “huge swathes of extreme right-wing [numpties]… desperate to avoid any measure that curtails their bigotry”. One wonders if Mr Yousaf considers Rab C Nesbitt actor, and prominent Yes campaigner, Elaine C. Smith to be one such raving right-winger, or whether that epithet applies to Rowan Atkinson or Val McDermid, or even those notoriously right-wing shock troops at… the Secular Society. There are more hostile and spiky individuals at the Lib Dem conference.

Perhaps the most telling remark that the Justice Secretary has made throughout this discussion is that freedom of speech is “in itself never an unfettered right”. He is, of course, if read literally and generously, correct. However, it is a right that ought to be applied as broadly, deeply, and sincerely as possible and the limits placed upon it ought to be few, rare, and as precise as possible. Even when read in the most optimistic way, the Hate Crime Bill does not ensure this and, as others have effectively pointed out, it presents a real and present danger to what remains of the right to speak, think, write, and joke freely in Scotland.

While chuntering about high-minded principles of free speech is both satisfying and necessary there is more work to be done and it should start now.

In an ideal world, and provided that it was drafted and amended correctly (perhaps an unrealistic expectation in itself), legislation protecting free speech against future such outrages would be laid before Holyrood and passed in a robust and lasting form.

However, given how unlikely that is, this vital shift could be inculcated at a cultural level. Given enough information and sufficient alarm-raising about the perilous state of free speech in Scotland, the Scottish people could be helped to understand that one of the most precious and rare jewels of living in a free Western democracy, the right to express yourself, even if that is in an offensive, insulting, and insensitive way, is at risk of being stolen from us from underneath our very noses.

Should such a groundswell occur, and I am very sceptical that it will, it would take quite some time to create and even longer to embed properly into our culture.

What can be done in the immediate future is for the opposition to the Hate Crime Bill to hold firm, it has Scottish society on its side, and resist and defeat this odious, malignant, and dangerous piece of legislation in order to send Mr Yousaf homeward to think again… and ask him to pop his Hate Crime Bill in the bin on his way there.

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