On 23 September 2020, Scotland’s Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced that the proposed Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill will be amended to safeguard freedom of speech. The bill, which is set to repeal Scotland’s archaic blasphemy law and consolidate existing hate crime legislation, faced criticism from human rights groups for failing to successfully balance the intended aims of the bill with an individual’s right to freedom of expression, and risked inadvertently introducing new blasphemy provisions at the same time as repealing pre-existing ones. Specifically, plans to introduce new criminal offenses, such as ‘stirring up hatred’ without the requirement of proving an individual’s intent to do so in order to obtain a conviction was cause for concern. The government has now announced that the wording of the bill will be revised so that only individuals with the intention of stirring up hatred will be prosecuted.
Humanist Society Scotland has been at the forefront of the campaign, warning how the wording of the bill could stifle freedom of speech. Further recommendations made by the organization and coalition partners remain under consideration by the Scottish authorities.
Chief Executive of Humanist Society Scotland said:
“This is a very welcome move by the Justice Secretary and shows that the government was serious when they said they were listening to concerns. The change to make the new stirring up offences ‘with intent’ only is something we have consistently asked for. This ensures best practice on intent from the UN Rabat Plan on incitement to hatred laws and shouldn’t see the law have a chilling effect on for example artistic freedom.
“We will continue to engage with the government and opposition parties at the Scottish Parliament on other aspects of the bill that we have raised questions about.”
The UN Rabat Plan of Action encourages states to apply a six-part test, which examines the social and political context; the status of the speaker; intent to incite; content or form of the speech; extent of the reach of the speech; and the likelihood of harm occurring, including imminence, in order to determine whether the threshold of incitement to hatred is met.
The proposed Hate Crime and Public Order Bill will include an article repealing the antiquated blasphemy law – an offense which has not been prosecuted in Scotland for more than 175 years – making Scotland the ninth country to repeal its ‘blasphemy’ law since the End Blasphemy Law coalition launched its campaign in 2015. Humanist Society Scotland has for years campaigned to see the abolishment of the blasphemy law in the nation.