Humanists raise concerns over hate crime bill impact on freedom of expression

drawing of a megaphone

Humanist Society Scotland has called for changes to be made to the draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which is being put forward by the Scottish Government, to ensure that protections against hate crime do not exclude humanists and that the Bill will not limit the right to freedom of expression with regards to discussions of religious beliefs. This move is supported by Humanist Society Scotland’s sister charity Humanists UK due to its previous experience working on hate crime legislation in England and Wales. The Bill also proposes to repeal Scotland’s blasphemy law, which has been welcomed by both organisations.

Humanist Society Scotland has raised concerns that proposed changes to the threshold relating to stirring up offences, where a person commits a crime if they encourage hatred towards someone or a group of people because of their racial or religious identity, will have a serious chilling impact on freedom of expression. Under the current proposals, a prosecutor will no longer need to prove that the accused intended to stir up hatred, but a conviction could be secured if it is perceived that the expression could have done so regardless of intent.

Furthermore, discriminatory actions such as incitement to violence or hatred based upon a person’s race or religion or belief should never be tolerated. But the currently proposed definition of a stirring up offence does not sufficiently differentiate between (i) prejudice and discriminatory actions against people who identify or are identified as being a member of a particular religious group, and (ii) criticism of the beliefs, ideas, and practices that might fall under the umbrella of that religious belief. It therefore poses a risk both to freedom of expression and thought and religion or belief. It may criminalise the latter as well as the former.

Humanist Society Scotland has also called for the Scottish Government to revise the Bill’s provision for statutory aggravator offences, where the accused can receive an enhanced sentence if it is proven that the crime they committed was motivated by racial or religious hatred, to expand the definition of religious hatred to cover equivalent non-religious beliefs, i.e. humanism.

Fraser Sutherland

Humanist Society Scotland’s Chief Executive Officer Fraser Sutherland commented,

‘Whilst many provisions within this Bill are very welcome, most notably the rationalisation of statutory aggravators and the repeal of the blasphemy law, it does not currently strike the right balance between protecting individuals from incitement to religious hatred and allowing legitimate criticism of religious beliefs. Therefore we have called upon the Scottish Government to make clear on the face of this Bill that nothing within it will prohibit or restrict discussion, criticism, or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult, of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents.’

Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson commented:

‘Due to our expertise and experience in campaigning on hate crime in the rest of the United Kingdom, we are supporting Humanist Society Scotland to secure important changes to this Bill to ensure that it guarantees freedom of religion or belief and expression. Any new legislation on hate speech concerning religion or belief must be restricted to protecting people as followers of a religion or holders of beliefs, and decidedly not act to protect the religion or belief itself. It is from this starting principle that the Scottish Government should consider its reforms.’

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