Bigotry has no place in a civilised society. That is what we’re told again and again, yet bigotry persists, humans aren’t civilised, we just put a polite veneer on baser instincts. Yet, we should have the freedom to express views and face the consequences of those views be they good or bad. I would rather know which people think less of me because of my skin colour, than live in a shadow world where we all live in perfect harmony, why? Because the latter is a lie and the former is a reality. Scotland’s new hate crime bill will make difficult conversations harder and will potentially end up harming those its meant to protect anyway.
The bill, if passed would criminalise a vast range of communications ‘relating to stirring up hatred’ based on age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics. The bill would go against a principal of free speech in that it would severely punish a speaker who had no negative intent, so long as the acting authority deemed the expression as likely to stir up hatred.
Furthermore, the bill would make it a crime to have in one’s possession material which is considered inflammatory in respects to another’s characteristics which have been previously defined, with the intent to share the material with another person, with the intention to stir up hatred or where hatred may be stirred up against such a group.
This last part is essential here, given that it is highly unlikely that anyone but the most vile of racists would openly admit to wanting to stir up hatred against a group, the inclusion of the words ‘may be’ leaves it to the police’s discretion and as such puts the ball firmly in their court with their associated prejudices. This is no way to go about preventing hatred.
How the authority would deem speech as stirring up hatred is not clearly defined within the bill, leaving it up to the authorities to decide at their discretion.
Given the Scottish government and police force’s track record on dealing with hate speech, I am not convinced that this law will actually be used for its purpose. One need only remember how Count Dankula, the Youtuber was fined for so called hatred despite there being no actual formal complaints against him from any group that might have been affected by his joke, to get the feeling that as with everything to do with the SNP, they are merely trying to signal that they are progressive rather than actually doing anything to bring about needed change.
Furthermore, the bill’s wording of ‘stirring up hatred’ is vague and liable to be abused by arrest happy police. For example in 2017, at a Glasgow Pride Parade two anti fascists LGBTQ activists were arrested ‘for breaching the peace with homophobic aggravation’. The crime? Simply holding up a placard that said ‘these faggots fight fascists.’ That arrest raised eyebrows, especially as the police couldn’t give an example of how the protestors who were themselves part of the LGBTQ crowd were exactly disturbing the peace by holding up the sign. Under the new proposed law, one would shudder to think how this would be interpreted by Police in Scotland.
But it is not just that. The bill also raises an interesting question of what happens when two minority groups criticise one another. As the National Secular Society highlights under the proposed legislation it could be very possible for a member of the LGBTQ community to criticise Islam and its views on homosexuality for example, and potentially be viewed as trying to stir up hatred and face charges, when that might not be the intent of the person criticising the religion. Furthermore, as recent polling has shown a majority of British Muslims think homosexuality should be banned, so does that therefore mean that if they were to voice disagreement with the LGBTQ movement’s existence, that they would face prosecution for expressing these views?
Given the sensitivity that currently exists around both these communities, it would be incredibly naïve to think that any decision in relation to offences committed by either against the other would be judged fairly, and without a predisposed bias.
The new Scottish Hate Crime Bill means well, and is trying to achieve a laudable goal, but the way it is worded and the way it will be interpreted makes me incredibly nervous. There is no guarantee that the spirit of the bill will be followed, or that it will be applied fairly. Anyone with common sense should be worried.