11 August 2020

Rowan Atkinson joins backlash to Scottish Hate Crime Bill

11 August 2020

Rowan Atkinson is among the high-profile figures to have signed a letter expressing opposition to the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill.

He is joined by authors Christopher Brookmyre and Val McDermid, actress Elaine C Smith and playwright Alan Bissett in raising fears about freedom of expression potentially being stifled.

The Bill has already faced criticism from the Scottish Police Federation, Catholic Church in Scotland and the Law Society of Scotland.

Hogmanay celebration (PA Archive)

Legal body the Faculty of Advocates has also raised concerns over “unintended consequences” for freedom of speech contained within the draft of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.

The draft legislation updates the list of characteristics protected under hate crimes and proposes the addition of age to this list.

If passed by the Scottish Parliament, the Bill would also provide for new “stirring up” of hatred offences that would apply to all characteristics.

These offences currently only apply to racial hatred.

The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious and other, must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish

The letter, signed by Atkinson and co-ordinated by the Humanist Society Scotland, highlights concerns over the Bill’s proposal to not require proof of intent over proposed stirring-up offences.

It says: “We represent a diverse group of individuals and organisations concerned about the impact on freedom of expression of the proposed Hate Crime and Public Order Bill as currently drafted.

“We welcome the provisions to consolidate existing aggravated hate crimes and the repeal of the blasphemy law.

“However, the Bill creates stirring up offences without any intent being examined; merely that the words, action, or artwork might do so.

“This offence could even be applied to being in possession of materials produced by someone else, where sharing the material could stir up hatred.”

It adds: “The unintended consequences of this well meaning Bill risk stifling freedom of expression and the ability to articulate or criticise religious and other beliefs.

“As currently worded, the Bill could frustrate rational debate and discussion, which has a fundamental role in society including in artistic endeavour.

“The arts play a key part in shaping Scotland’s identity, in addition to being a significant economic contributor.

“The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious and other, must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish.”

ScotRail fleet upgrade (PA Archive)

Fraser Sutherland, chief executive of the Humanist Society Scotland, said: “The Bill as proposed has behind it some sound intentions, however it is clear from the broad support to our joint letter that concerns remain about poorly drafted provisions.

“The failure of the Bill to require intent to be proven in court on some offences risks a significant chilling effect on free expression.

“This is why the UN Rabat Plan has six tests on controlling hate speech including that any laws must ensure intent is proven. This strikes a sensible balance between protecting individuals from hate crime and protecting freedom of expression and the Bill needs amending to properly achieve this.”

Scotland’s Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf responded to the letter on Twitter, saying: “This letter from various artists will be given serious consideration.

“Their key concern seems to be that stirring up offences should be restricted to intent only. It is an area of Bill I will reflect further on.

“Vital we listen to the many voices of groups targeted by hate.”

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