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Scotland's Hate Crime Bill: A Threat to Freedom of Speech

Updated: Apr 27

Scotland’s new hate crime bill is perhaps the most draconian incursion on freedom of speech in post-war British history. 

Under the guise of providing protection for victims of hatred, the SNP have enacted a law which imperils freedom of expression. The legislation is vague, ill-conceived, and borders on the absurd.

Its ambiguity leaves it vulnerable to abuse by resentful actors seeking revenge on their employers, friends, or family through reporting their slightly offensive speech. People must be able to hear things they don’t like, and governments should tread extremely carefully when devising any laws intruding on freedom of expression. 

What’s inside the bill?

The act says that anybody ‘stirring up hatred’ against a protected characteristic like gender identity, religion, or disability, can be fined or face up to 7 years in prison. 

The definition given for ‘stirring up’ hate is, inevitably, woefully vague. It includes both communicating threatening or abusive content, or language judged to be intending to stir up hatred. The act also removes the ‘dwelling defence’, meaning that Scottish people can be prosecuted for conversations had within their own homes. 

Even behaviour deemed merely ‘insulting’ can be prosecuted under this new law. Private conversations, the written word, electronic communications, and distribution of online materials are all outlined as ways that hate can be spread. 

What are the implications?

The lack of forethought given to this bill is astonishing, and its implications are dangerous for freedom of expression. 

‘Stirring up hatred’ is a vague and undefined term, with a range of interpretation so broad as to almost lose its meaning entirely. Hatred is very often subjective and thus can’t be precisely defined by any legislation. For that matter, stirring up usually refers to a situation where the words of an individual or a group prompts action from others. Both in-person and online, hearing something hateful doesn’t always encourage another person to echo the message. The bill’s foundational phrase is ambiguous and misleading, consequently the rest of its contents don’t have a shot at coherence. 

Even within your own home the content of your speech has to comply with this law. Under the SNP’s proposed conversion therapy ban, parents who refuse to let their children change their gender could face up to 7 years in prison. The SNP are creating a new world in which government surveillance triumphs over individual privacy.

The Police are already overworked as it is and are now expected to monitor everyday speech. They have also been told that comedians are liable for prosecution if their jokes are deemed hateful by any in-person or online audience member. Without freedom of speech, art forms like comedy, that bring joy to millions, wither away. 

If the police assess a reported hate incident and judge that it doesn’t break the threshold for criminality, it will still be logged down as a ‘non-crime incident’ on the perpetrator’s record. 

This law would frankly be more at home in Orwell’s Ministry of Truth than at Holyrood.

Who is behind this?

First Minister Humza Yousaf is the mastermind behind this legislation and was swiftly scrutinised for his own purportedly hateful speech in the Scottish Parliament. 

The now infamous clip of Yousaf complaining about white people occupying top positions in Scotland, despite the country comprising 96% white people, was reported to the police by thousands of people. 

Complaining that people of a certain race are occupying top positions, and that this ‘is not good enough’, was undeniably racist. His furious rant portrays the mere presence of white people as a problem, and he suggests this ought to be addressed. Racism involves prejudice against a particular ethnic group, which is precisely what Yousaf did. He also had the nerve to suggest that he hadn’t seen anyone describing his speech as racist that wasn’t ‘part of the far-right’.

A politician conducting a speech complaining about positions being occupied by non-white people would almost certainly be deemed hateful under this new law. Yousaf’s disdain for white people is shared by Labour’s Scottish Leader Anas Sarwar, who delivered a similar speech in 2020.

Their speeches would clearly breach the new law were they made today, spewing hateful language about a particular ethnic group as they did. But if they were to repeat their remarks, it is unlikely they would face any consequences given that Police Scotland’s own website breaches the new law. It says that ‘we know that young men aged 18-30 are the most likely to commit a hate crime’ and claims they may hold ‘deep-rooted feelings’ of ‘white-male entitlement’. 

It is difficult to miss the lack of substantiation here. Singling out young, white men as the likely perpetrators of hate crimes seems a dogma in the Scottish hate crime debate, requiring neither evidence nor further inspection. This is an unfair assumption based on someone’s race, age and gender - this is quite simply prejudice. 


This new hate crime legislation is a step too far when it comes to tackling hateful speech. The existing laws, like the Public Order Acts, do a sound job of preventing and dealing with discrimination in a range of public settings. No government has the right to police people’s private speech, and certainly lacks the mandate to arrest them for a joke deemed hateful by a single individual.

Freedom of speech is an essential part of a functioning democracy, and this bill threatens this fundamental right. Without free expression, we cannot have unrestricted debate on key issues. People must be allowed to hear things they don’t like or don’t agree with. Good ideas must emerge through uninhibited debate, which also serves to expose bad ideas. Censoring speech doesn’t make you progressive, it makes you a tyrant. 

Thankfully a Downing Street spokesperson said that Rishi Sunak is not considering similar laws for England, but it is unclear whether an incoming Labour government would draw inspiration from Yousaf’s bill.

The SNP government in Scotland ought to stop broadcasting their irrational fear of mere words, and instead focus on the real issues that matter to voters like housing, healthcare, the economy, and policing. This law is not fit for purpose and should be resisted and abolished as soon as possible. 

Image: Scottish Government

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