A group of actors, writers and campaigners have warned the Scottish Government that its hate crime Bill risks “stifling freedom of expression”.
In an open letter, the 24 signatories, including actor Rowan Atkinson, crime writer Val McDermid and Rab C Nesbitt actress Elaine C Smith, expressed their concern over the SNP’s proposed law.
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill aims to criminalise ‘abusive’ words or behaviour ‘likely to stir up hatred’ against people on the grounds of characteristics such as religion, sexuality, and transgender identity.
‘Stirring up hatred’
The letter said: “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.”
It explained that the Bill “creates stirring up offences without any intent being examined; merely that the words, action, or artwork might do so”.
It added: “This offence could even be applied to being in possession of materials produced by someone else, where sharing the material could stir up hatred.”
Critics of the Bill have pointed out in recent weeks that this could include the Bible.
The letter’s signatories, which also include homosexual activist Peter Tatchell and philosopher A C Grayling, continued: “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.”
Rowan Atkinson has been vocal in his support for free speech in the past. In 2012 the comedian gave his full support to a Christian Institute-led campaign which successfully reformed a controversial ‘insults’ law.
At the time, Section 5 of the Public Order Act outlawed “insulting” words or behaviour that may cause alarm or distress to a person, and resulted in many controversial arrests.
Speaking at a parliamentary reception, Atkinson cautioned against “a new but intense desire to gag uncomfortable voices of dissent”, which he said could be described as a “New Intolerance”.