The SNP’s radical assault on freedom of speech

When Humza Yousaf first proposed his Hate Crime Bill, I compared it to the late, unlamented Offensive Behaviour Act. Similarly rushed through Holyrood by the SNP, it sought to rid Scottish football of sectarian behaviour by, among other things, criminalising the singing of certain songs at matches. The Act didn’t specify which songs and so it was left to the discretion of a police officer overhearing a chant to decide whether or not it would be offensive to a reasonable person. Astonishingly enough, this didn’t work out and such was the fan and legal profession backlash that the Act was eventually repealed — in the teeth of SNP opposition.

The Hate Crime Bill was, in part, their revenge and it was of a nuclear variety. Don’t like us arbitrarily policing speech at football matches? Fine, we’ll classify the whole country as a football match. The Bill, which passed what passes for a parliament on Thursday, is weaker than the one introduced but it is no less sinister. It is an authoritarian smash-and-grab on freedom of speech, extending the power of the state to regulate and punish expression far beyond consensus functions such as maintaining public order and deterring incitement to violence.

The legislation creates a sweeping new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’. Liable for prosecution will be anyone who ‘behaves in a manner that a reasonable person would consider to be threatening, abusive or insulting’ — or communicates such material — if he or she ‘intends to stir up hatred against a group of persons based on the group being defined by reference to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins’, or if ‘a reasonable person would consider the behaviour or the communication of the material to be likely to result in hatred being stirred up against such a group’.

This law remains to its core a radical assault on liberal principles

The same offence applies for hatred based on ‘age; disability; religion or, in the case of a social or cultural group, perceived religious affiliation; sexual orientation; transgender identity; variations in sex characteristics’, except for these categories only ‘threatening’ or ‘abusive’ language will be criminal. Yousaf freely admits that his law will even apply to utterances made in the privacy of the home. Penalties range from fines to seven years in prison.

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