Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Scotland’s new ‘hate speech’ rules are a modern blasphemy law

Today’s society has its own notion of the sacred

Social Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf (Getty Images)

It is 178 years since the last recorded charge of blasphemy in Scotland, against the Edinburgh bookseller Thomas Paterson for ‘exhibiting placards of a profane nature’ in his shop window in 1842.

One of those placards announced that ‘Paterson & Co (of the Blasphemy Depot, London)… Beg to acquaint infidels in general and Christians in particular that… [we] will sell all kinds of printed works which are calculated to enlighten, without corrupting — to bring into contempt the demoralising trash our priests palm upon the credulous as divine revelation — and to expose the absurdity of, as well as the horrible effects springing from, the debasing god-idea.’ For good measure he added: ‘The Bible and other obscene works not sold at this shop.’ Richard Dawkins couldn’t have stuck it to Christians more pungently.

Anyway, Mr Paterson, a veteran of the English blasphemy wars, wanted a fight, and he got one. But interesting as his fate is, it’s not what you could call a current grievance. Which hasn’t stopped the Scottish government from proposing to do away with the blasphemy law, modernising it and extending it to cover discrimination against age, disability, race, religion and sexual orientation.

‘In any really well-governed realm, the free and honest expression of opinion would be encouraged’

The Scottish Justice Minister Humza Yousaf said: ‘Stirring up of hatred can contribute to a social atmosphere in which discrimination is accepted as normal. By creating robust laws for the justice system, parliament will send a strong message to victims, perpetrators, communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated seriously and will not be tolerated.’

Trouble is, offences motivated by prejudice lack the relative specificity of the old blasphemy law, which aimed originally to prevent the vilification of the Christian religion, and later, to prevent breaches of the peace caused by unbelievers outraging religious sensibilities in a wilfully provocative way.

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