The new Hate Crime Bill proposed by the Scottish Government is a sweeping threat to freedom of speech and conscience. The draft law radically expands the power of the state to punish expression and expression-adjacent behaviour, such as possession of ‘inflammatory material’. It provides for the prosecution of ill-defined ‘organisations’ (and individuals within them) and could even see actors and directors prosecuted if a play they perform is considered to contain a hate crime.
Its schedule of protected characteristics is extended beyond race (which covers ethnicity, national origin and citizenship) to include age, disability, ‘religion or… perceived religious affiliation’, sexual orientation, transgender identity and ‘variations in sex characteristics’. If the Bill is passed, Scotland would become the most aggressive regulator of citizens’ speech in the United Kingdom and one of the most aggressive in democratic Europe.
I have already written about the general flaws in this Bill, the brainchild of Scotland’s Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, but let’s focus today on the question of religion. The National Secular Society (NSS) initially welcomed the Bill as it removed the offence of blasphemy from Scots law.
Now, the NSS’s Chris Sloggett warns the Bill’s provisions on religious hatred risk enacting ‘a de facto clampdown on freedom of expression’. The Hate Crime Bill is drafted in such a way that in abolishing the old offence of blasphemy, it threatens to introduce a new, more wide-ranging one. If you hate religion and want to encourage others to do the same, you’ll have to do it on the other side of the border.
The problems begin with a new offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ that the Bill creates. It will become a crime to ‘behave in a threatening or abusive manner or communicate threatening or abusive material to another person’ based on their perceived religious affiliation.