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Scottish bill will ‘close down’ free speech

July 2020

John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society
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The Scottish Government has come under increasing pressure to modify its Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, with critics warning it can be weaponised to destroy free speech.

The bill seeks to extend the current laws on ‘hate crimes’ against particular characteristics, including religion, race, sexual orientation, and transgender identity.

Ciarán Kelly, deputy director for communications at The Christian Institute, called it a ‘very concerning bill’. He said, ‘If it becomes law it could have implications for many areas of life.

‘In this day and age certain groups are far too quick to find offence whenever someone disagrees with them.

‘Biblical truth is offensive to many. Sadly, it is not difficult to see how the broad language of the bill might be used to suppress free speech. The draft includes some welcome free speech clauses, but they don’t protect the freedom to disagree in every area that’s necessary.’

His comments were echoed by John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and former editor of The Scotsman. In an editorial he called the bill ‘a golden opportunity for political activists to use its terms to close down opponents’.

He added, ‘the very process of proving there has been no wrong-doing or justifying what has been written or said is in itself an infringement of freedom of expression.’ Moreover, he warned that politicians themselves could ‘weaponise’ the bill against each other.

Many voices have joined the backlash against the bill in recent weeks, with Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors, commenting that the legislation appeared to be ‘designed to silence debate’, while Jackson Carlaw, leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, was quoted in The Daily Mail as saying the bill ‘promises to end in a very bad place — with the erosion of the most important freedom of all, that of speech’.

In June, Evangelical Times reported on the Crown Prosecution Service pulling its controversial LGBT hate-crime guidance for schools following a legal challenge by a 14-year-old girl.

The guidance, published in January, warned schools they could face legal action if they do not allow transgender pupils to use the toilets and changing rooms of their choice.

It also claimed, bizarrely, that teenagers could be guilty of a hate crime for ‘rejecting someone’, ‘not wanting to work with them’, or excluding them from a friendship group.

The schoolgirl, known as Miss A, said the document was distressing and she was worried that she could fall foul of the law if these standards were applied. The CPS said its guidance was under review.