Scotland dangles over cliff edge on freedom of speech - Stuart Weir

It’s hard to imagine having anyone around for dinner anymore. But let’s cast our imagination forward to a time when it will be safe to do so. The room is warm with bodies, the table shows signs of great consumption, and laughter is loud and frequent. Until someone says something. One of your guests takes great offence to a comment you make. The humour of the night evaporates as quickly as it arrived as it is clear you have upset this person. It takes a moment to diffuse the tension. But you know that you have injured your friend for the rest of the night.

Stuart Weir, national director of CARE for Scotland.

Not soon afterwards comes a knock at your door. It’s the police. You’re up for suspicion of a hate crime. You’ve said something beyond the pale: a comment that the State is unwilling to consider civil; an utterance of anathema. Bewildered and scared you are marched into the white, yellow and blue car for proceedings to take their course. Your friend has ratted you out.

By the end of session 5 of the Scottish Parliament it could be that such a scenario will be expected. That is, if the Hate Crime Bill is passed. But the discarding of a ‘dwelling defence’, which protects every ordinary citizen’s speech within the confines of their home, makes no appearance in the Scottish Government’s proposed legislation. Every country in the United Kingdom currently enshrines such a liberty. But Scotland is looking to willingly jettison this for the sake of tackling hate crime. But the folly of this approach is mind blowing: the statistics of 2019-20 (with our pre-Covid lives) demonstrate that the existing laws are working, with 6448 arrests.

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Furthermore, my evening meal example shows the absurdity of a slight or insult being taken too far. What this Bill proposes is a mechanism which has too low a threshold which will get many undeserving people a criminal record. And as Stage 2 of the Bill demonstrated, the Justice Committee were unwilling to consider a ‘prosecution lock’ - a failsafe which would mean the Court of Session could reverse any State heavy handedness. The Scottish Government would do better investing in further intelligence services to identify terrorist and racist cells than roll out State fear where people no longer can be themselves.

Consequently, if this Bill is not voted down, it needs a much clearer and higher threshold for anyone to commit a hate crime, to avoid filling the jails with people of strong opinion. Twitter would be silent for once! What is required are very specific examples of aggravations which can be committed rather than the nebulous net that will be breached by anyone and everyone.

We stand at the brink. The Scottish Parliament dangles over the cliff edge freedom of thought and freedom of speech, to supplant it with a crushing law that will hem Scotland in. MSPs must ignore party whips now and stand up for a liberty that goes beyond political tribes and assumed alliances. This is the moment, with Stage 3 of the Hate Crime bill before them, to vote it down.

Stuart Weir, National Director of CARE for Scotland

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