Scotland Passes Hate Crime Law Amid Free Speech Concerns

March 12, 2021 Updated: March 12, 2021

The Scottish Parliament has passed a controversial bill on so-called hate crimes despite concerns about its impact on freedom of speech.

The bill was passed on Thursday by 82 votes to 32. It was supported by the Scottish National Party (SNP), Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. Only the Scottish Conservatives voted against it.

Scotland’s regional government, led by the SNP, hailed it as a piece of “powerful legislation” that is “for the 21st century.”

“Through the passing of this landmark Bill, Parliament has sent a strong and clear message to victims, perpetrators, communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated seriously and will not be tolerated,” said Humza Yousaf, justice secretary for the Scottish government.

But the Scottish Conservatives called the bill “a serious threat to freedom of speech.”

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament in April 2020 for consideration following the independent review by Lord Bracadale, which recommended consolidation of all of Scotland’s hate crime laws into one bill.

Controversially, the bill introduced a new set of offences called “stirring up of hatred.” While in past legislation only stirring up racial hatred was deemed an offence, the new offences will apply to all characteristics listed in the bill: age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variations in sex characteristics.

Critics say that the new provisions will have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.

Last summer, more than 20 writers, artists, comedians, and human rights activists signed an open letter expressing their concerns about the “unintended consequences” the bill might have on free speech.

The co-signatories, who include novelist Chris Brookmyre and comedian Rowan Atkinson, said the bill could stifle freedom of expression and “frustrate rational debate and discussion” in society, including in the arts.

Responding to criticism last month, Yousaf said the threshold for “stirring up hatred” offences was “very, very high,” and “the intent must be proven beyond reasonable doubt.”

“Robust scrutiny has ensured we have met the right balance between protecting groups targeted by hate crime and respecting people’s rights to free speech,” he said on Thursday.