On the 23rd July 2020 the Free Church of Scotland submitted our response to the Call for Views from the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament in relation to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. We note that in opposing certain key aspects of the Bill we are joined by a diverse range of bodies including The National Secular Society, The Peter Tatchell Foundation, The Catholic Church, The Faculty of Advocates, The Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Police Federation.
One of the issues we raised in our response to the Bill was the fact that the proposed new offence of “stirring up hatred” did not require that the perpetrator intended to commit the offence and accordingly the offence could be committed unwittingly by someone who had no intention at all of stirring up hatred. Accordingly, we welcome the announcement by the Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf on the 23rd September 2020 that a requirement that the perpetrator intended to stir up hatred would be introduced into the Bill.
However, whilst recognising that requiring an intention to stir up hatred is an improvement, we note that “intention” is a legal test and that the courts can take into account the full facts and circumstances to infer intention. This means that although the person may never have “intended” in the everyday sense of the word, to stir up hatred, the Court might infer from the circumstances that he or she did so intend. This will, therefore, continue to have a chilling effect on Free Speech. The nature of the offence is still too vague and it is too easy for someone to fall foul of the legislation simply by disagreeing with someone else’s opinion. The proposed offence will drive debate and discussion underground and be dangerous for our civil society in the long run.
We also continue to remain concerned about other aspects of the bill including the offence of possessing inflammatory material.
In conclusion, despite the Justice Secretary’s concession we still believe Part 2 of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is at best unnecessary and ultimately has the potential to seriously undermine our democratic and liberal society by dampening Free Speech. Too many people automatically view disagreement as hatred rather than engaging in civilised debate over differing opinions. We want to encourage genuine debate and discussion in our society and that will not be achieved by criminalising perceived hatred.
As the Free Church of Scotland we have an interest in promoting debate and discussion. We believe that this is not only in the interests of Christians but is in the interests of society as a whole. We worry that this Bill will drive legitimate debate underground and have a chilling effect on Free Speech.
Our full letter to the Justice Committee setting out our ongoing concerns can be found here.