NICOLA Sturgeon has pledged to listen to feedback about proposed hate crime legislation for Scotland, encouraging those who oppose the law to make their voices heard.
Criticism of the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill has been widespread, with many in the Irish community sharing their fears that the legislation will simply be another incarnation of the hated Offensive Behaviour At Football and Threatening Communications Act—the repeal of which was forced following a hard-fought campaign.
Announcing her government’s legislative agenda, the First Minister spoke of how government priorities have changed in reaction to the Covid-19 crisis, but nevertheless outlined her desire to press ahead with the legislation before the next election.
The Scottish Parliament will be prorogued in March ahead of the election scheduled for May of next year, meaning that the battle lines are already being drawn as the bill continues to progress through parliament.
Acknowledging that ‘concerns have been raised,’ Ms Sturgeon (above) told her parliamentary colleagues that she will give attention to criticisms in an effort to safeguard free speech in Scotland.
“I want to give an assurance that we will listen carefully,” she said. “Freedom of speech and expression is fundamental in any democracy.”
However, despite her assurances, she was later questioned by Liam Kerr, Justice spokesman for the Conservatives, who recognised the criticism from the Law Society and others across Scottish society and called on the First Minister to shelve her plans.
“The hate crime bill has been criticised by amongst others, the Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and several cultural figures as a threat to freedom of speech,” Mr Kerr said. “Will the First Minister listen to these criticisms and withdraw and re-think the hate crime bill that so many have spoken out against?”
Mr Kerr had also previously raised the prospect of extremism being encouraged through the introduction of such a bill, as well as a malicious use of its powers —a concern heightened by comments from Atheist Scotland that they will look to bring cases against religious communities using the law.
“It’s now seems that this poorly thought-out bill is encouraging extremism,” Mr Kerr said. “Groups across the political, religious and civic divide have all warned that it could be used for just these kind of malicious intentions.
“Despite Humza Yousaf’s regular calls for tolerance, his own bill is now opening the door to extremism. The Justice Secretary must rethink and withdraw this doomed bill, which is fast becoming an excuse for intolerance.”
This concern, along with the now well-established view from within the Irish community that this prospective legislation is simply an attempt by the Scottish Government to replace the Offensive Behaviour Act, has also been raised by Call It Out: The Campaign Against Anti-Catholic Bigotry And Anti-Irish Racism.
Speaking to The Irish Voice, Call It Out told of the dangers faced by the Irish community if the law is passed.
“This bill represents the same danger to our community and others as did the equally poorly-conceived Offensive Behaviour at Football Act,” a spokesperson said. “It is an assault on free speech and, if voted into law, will result in the criminalisation of political debate on a wide range of issues.”
In response to these and other concerns, a Scottish Government spokesperson moved to reassure the public that the law will not be used to criminalise or limit debate in the event of it being passed.
“The bill does not criminalise religious beliefs or practices and does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way,” the spokesperson said. “People can express controversial, challenging or offensive views as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended or likely to stir up hatred.
“The bill includes explicit provisions on protection of freedom of expression.”
However, despite similar reassurances of its proper use and the safeguards to freedom of speech while the Offensive Behaviour At Football and Threatening Communications Act was being introduced, the Irish community was among a broad spectrum of voices who were compelled to speak out against that act in a long and difficult campaign. Many in the community will now be hoping that lessons learned through those years will now encourage the public to scrutinise this bill much more closely.