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Scotland's New Hate Crime Law Stirs Up Controversy

Published March 20, 2024
2 months ago

Scotland's new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act, which takes effect on April 1st, has become a focal point for a contentious debate on freedom of speech and hate crimes. The act expands the scope of behavior that could be considered criminal if it is deemed to "stir up hatred" against protected groups based on factors like age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and other variations in sex characteristics. Notably, race is currently protected under the existing Public Order Act 1986.

Supporters of the legislation argue that the act is a step towards constructing a more tolerant Scottish society. However, the act has faced stark opposition from various quarters who label it as "illiberal" and "scandalous," expressing concerns that it may lead to a "two-tier society" where certain groups are protected from hate crimes while others are not, notably omitting protections based on sex.

The legislation has ignited discussions about the criminalization of speech, especially regarding opinions and rhetoric on illegal immigration. The potential that expressing negative sentiment on this topic, and others, could be criminalized under the new law is a source of significant discontent.

One of the act's more controversial features is the establishment of third-party "reporting centers" where individuals can report hate crimes if they are uncomfortable approaching the police directly. Among the designated reporting centers are locations as varied as a mushroom farm in East Lothian, and a sex shop located in Glasgow, which has generated further debate about the act's implementation.

The Police Scotland video campaign, which introduces a character dubbed the 'hate monster', has also drawn criticism for allegedly trivializing hate crime.

Despite the controversies, proponents strongly defend the new law, arguing that critics are battling phantoms. They highlight the safeguards within the act and note that it does not target speech simply based on a victim's feelings but rather focuses on actions intended to stir up hatred. Supporters also note that similar "stirring up" offenses have existed in British law for decades, shedding light on the continuity of legal principles regarding hate crimes.

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf has voiced firm support for the legislation, emphasizing its message that crimes motivated by prejudice are serious and will not be tolerated in Scottish society.

As the act comes into force, Scotland finds itself at a critical discourse intersection, balancing the noble quest for a more tolerant society with vital concerns for protecting freedom of expression.

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