The Bill That Broke The Hate Speech Camel’s Back | Ben Thompson


Britain’s shaky relationship with the concept of freedom of speech is one of my biggest gripes about the country – and frustratingly, it’s one area where our culture doesn’t seem to have been ‘Americanised’.

Whereas Americans are proud to uphold their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, Britons tend to be a little bit more lukewarm on the matter. And nowhere is this more obvious than in our discourse surrounding Hate Speech laws.

Polls have consistently shown that the British public support laws that would protect minorities from verbal abuse – one YouGov poll found 65% of people think language intended to stir up hatred towards the disabled should be illegal, whilst another poll revealed that 46% thought a similar standard should be applied to protect religion.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the people in favour of such measures will most likely have good intentions. They’ll see Hate Speech laws as a barrier of protection for vulnerable people against oppressive forces.

And far be it for me to suggest that the police shouldn’t take a hard line against verbal threats or continuous harassment.

However, I can’t stomach the thought of a ever-growing list of speech offences taking ahold in a country that is supposedly free.

I’d like to think the issue of free speech is not a partisan issue. Last year, I was outraged when comedian Jo Brand was investigated by the police, after she quipped that battery acid would be a good substitute for a milkshake (This was during that comparatively simple period in Britain when people just threw milkshakes over people they didn’t like).

Brand’s controversial speech offence saw many of the British left rally to her defence, as they loudly lamented the death of free speech – something they’ve had a direct hand in.

The Scottish National Party had perhaps been banking on the support of such people when it came to their Hate Crime Bill, but so far they’ve been facing opposition from various corners.

The Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, in the view of the Scottish Government, will modernise existing laws that tackle hate crime.

The Bill attracted some attention in the media when it was revealed that it would officially abolish blasphemy as an offence – I personally don’t see this as a big deal in any case, seeing as how nobody has been prosecuted for blasphemy in over 175 years, but hey-ho.

But a more controversial aspect of the Bill was its section on hate speech. It is indeed troubling.

Should this Bill pass, ‘stirring up hatred’ against individuals – based on race, sexuality, gender identity, religion, disability, nationality and age – would be a criminal offence, even if the person had not done so intentionally, or had made the remarks in private.

The offence would carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. Think about that, SEVEN YEARS IN PRISON.

That’s insane.

There are so many things wrong with the concept of ‘Hate Speech’ that I could honestly write a book on the topic, but I’ll try and reduce my issues with the concept into three points-

  • The concept of ‘stirring up hatred’ is extremely vague. Whereas ‘inciting violence’ is a little more straight-forward, to ‘stir up hatred’ leaves quite a bit to the imagination. Somebody saying they don’t believe in same-sex marriage could be seen as stirring up hatred – and has been used to justify arrests in this country before, for the record.
  • Unless the remarks being reported to the police are of a violent or threatening nature, they should be no business of the police. Surely, we can all agree that policing knife crime is a higher priority than attending to somebody’s hurt feelings?
  • Lumping in hate speech with acts of violence or intimidation creates a distortion of the extent of bigotry within society. We can’t credibly tackle homophobia, racism or xenophobia if we rank a rude tweet alongside physical assault or intimidation.

So, as you’ve no doubt gathered, I’m not a fan of the SNP’s bill.

But the response from various bodies in Scottish society has given me some reason to hope.

The Scottish Police Federation are perhaps the most noteworthy critics of the Bill’s proposals, as they claimed the new law would lead to the policing of what Scots ‘think and feel’, thus leading to a breakdown in relations between citizens and the police.

The SPF also opposed a provision in the Bill that would grant officers the power of entry by force in order to enforce this law, and lamented that the Bill would significantly increase their workload. So all in all, they found a lot of problems with it.

But they weren’t alone.

The Law Society of Scotland have warned that the Bill would limit freedom of expression, whereas the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland expressed concern that owning a Bible could soon be considered possession of inflammatory material.

The National Secular Society also chimed in with their view that the legislation was ‘excessive’, vague’ and seriously risked ‘chilling free speech.’

The Humanist Society Scotland echoed these concerns in a public letter signed by a coalition of artists and academics, who stressed that “The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious and other must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish.”

When you have the secular groups and Catholic Bishops singing from the same hymn sheet (If you’ll pardon the pun…), then you know your Bill has issues.

A new group has formed out of the swelling opposition to the Bill, headed by a former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars. The Free to Disagree group is currently pushing for changes to be made to the law, with the backing of citizens from all political and philosophical backgrounds.

I sincerely hope they succeed in their cause. Theirs is a beacon of hope to me and others who value the freedom to express opinions.

The consequences of this new bill could be catastrophic for free expression in Scotland. Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, suggested that comedians like Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle could fall foul of the law should they try out some offensive material in Scotland.

This might seem absurd at first, but we should never take for granted how easily the government can intrude on matters of speech – we have a catalogue of cases to demonstrate it’s something they’d be willing to involve themselves with.

Whether we’re on the left or the right, we should stick up for our fellow citizens’ right to speak their mind. Sure, we may hate what they have to say. They may go about expressing their view in a rude or boorish way.

But to travel down a road of criminalising such expressions is to travel down a road towards disaster, and the SNP would be wise to change course.


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