On 24 November 2020, Scotland’s Justice Minister Humza Yousaf announced further amendments to the proposed Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill in order to safeguard freedom of speech. This welcome move follows sustained campaigning led by End Blasphemy Laws Coalition members, Humanist Society Scotland and Humanists UK, together with other stakeholders.
Following the Justice Minister’s commitment to drop section 4 of the bill, expressions of ‘antipathy, dislike, ridicule and insult’ of religious beliefs will be protected as a central component of an individual’s legitimate right to freedom of expression. Prosecutors would now be required to prove that the offending expression is either threatening or abusive to meet the threshold of a hate crime, rather than merely insulting, and this will not apply in the context of a public performance.
Responding to the announcement, Humanists Society Scotland’s Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland commented:
“We are pleased that the Scottish Government has engaged with us and the many other stakeholders in Scotland who were concerned that this Bill would illegitimately curtain criticism of religious beliefs. We need to ensure that any new hate crime provision in Scotland is in line with international standards on tackling incitement and hatred. Changing the proposed provisions on the criticism of religious belief and the intent to stir up hatred is an important part of achieving this goal.”
On 24 April, the Scottish Parliament confirmed its intention to repeal the nation’s antiquated blasphemy law. To this end, the government has put forward the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which aside from including an article repealing the blasphemy law, is designed to rationalise existing hate crime legislation. The initial formulation of the bill, however, raised concerns that the law would introduce undue restrictions on freedom of expression, and risked inadvertently introducing new blasphemy provisions at the same time as repealing pre-existing ones.
Humanist Society Scotland raised concerns about the Bill in July, bringing together a coalition of over 20 leading individuals and organisations from the world of arts, journalism, literature, comedy, politics and human rights to publish a joint letter calling for amendments in August. The changes came on the heels of a meeting with the Justice Committee in which the organization, together with writers, artists and journalists, set out their concerns.
EBL Coalition partner Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented:
“The importance of freedom of expression and the right to freely criticise beliefs and ideas of fundamental importance, religious or otherwise, cannot be overstated. We have strongly supported the Scottish Government in its plans to repeal the common law offence of blasphemy in Scotland and with this latest announcement our fears that this Bill would create anew those same restrictions have been allayed.”