Hate Crime Bill will paralyse free speech, police body warns

The Scottish Police Federation has said proposed law could see officers determining what amounts to free speech.

Hate Crime Bill will paralyse free speech, police body warns Police Scotland

Controversial new hate crime legislation could mean police officers have to determine what amounts to free speech, the Scottish Police Federation has warned.

The SPF, which represents rank-and-file officers, said this would have a devastating impact on the force.

It claimed measures in the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill could mean performing or playing some songs could be criminalised.

The organisation is the latest to oppose the proposed legislation after the Law Society of Scotland said it has “significant reservations” about the Bill.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill would, if passed, create an offence of “stirring up hatred” against a protected group, expanding on existing laws protecting racial groups.

The Scottish Government says the legislation would provide greater protection for victims of and groups affected by hate crime.

Justice secretary Humza Yousaf has said for an offence of “stirring up hatred” to be committed it would have to be linked to threatening or abusive behaviour.

He denied it would be a threat to freedom of expression, saying the bar for charging someone for this offence will be “very high”, with any accusations having to be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

But in a submission to MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee, the SPF said this proposal “complicates the law and is in our opinion too vague to be implemented”.

Training police in the legislation could cost between £3.5m and £4m, assuming officers are given a day of it, the police body said.

It continued: “We cannot support a Bill which appears to paralyse freedom of speech in Scotland, particularly when threatening conduct is already a well-recognised criminal offence which does not require duplication.

“This Bill will, if passed, paralyse freedom of expression for both individuals and organisations by threatening prosecution for the mere expression of opinion which may be unpopular.”

The SPF noted song lyrics “in certain genres of music promote and glorify the injury and murder of police officers, or sexual objectification of women, for example”.

It added: “Performers have a long history of protest, activism, or depending on your particular point of view, simply promoting bad taste or abhorrent ideals”.

Referring to the hit song Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke, it said “many believe this song glorifies rape”.

The SPF went on to ask: “It is conceivable the performance (or indeed playing) of this song could constitute an offence under the stirring up hatred provisions whereas those that advocate or promote violence against police officers would not.

“Is this the intention of the Bill?”

SPF general secretary Calum Steele said the organisation is “firmly of the view this proposed legislation would see officers policing speech” which would “devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public”.

“That can never be an acceptable outcome – and we should never forget that the police in Scotland police only with the consent of the people,” he said.

“Police officers are all too aware that there are individuals in society who believe that to feel insulted or offended is a police matter.

“The Bill would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private.”

He added: “We do not for one second suggest that prejudice, racism or discrimination are desirable qualities in our society.

“But the need to address those matters when they reach a criminal level is met by laws already in place and the cost to free speech of going further with this Bill is too high a price to pay for very little gain.”