Freedom in lockdown?

There’s a mighty argument brewing in Scotland over free speech. With a global pandemic going on, you might think the Scottish Government was too busy with its response to that to be introducing controversial new legislation. But the coronavirus has not stopped the Justice Secretary from pushing ahead with plans to remove Scotland’s old blasphemy laws and replace them with new hate crime laws.

The new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill removes the centuries-old Scottish blasphemy laws and replaces them with new legislation.

While the abolition of the blasphemy law will make no real difference in day-to-day life (it was last used in 1843), the new offences of stirring up hatred will prove especially controversial.

The Bill also expands the list of so called ‘protected characteristics’ to include age. That list will then be as follows: age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity *.

Some will argue that we don’t want to live in a society where hatred and prejudice are on display all the time. I sympathise with this argument. There is a spectrum of views as to where we draw the line when it comes to the sort of speech that is acceptable or not. However, the concept of hate crimes and hate speech is incredibly slippery and raises far more questions than answers. At the heart of the debate is the issue about who becomes the judge of what constitutes acceptable speech?

Take the phrase ‘hate crime’. Immediately, it begs the question: what is ‘hatred’ and who defines it? Is it even possible to produce a legally workable definition?

When you add the word ‘laws’ to the phrase, it should send a shudder down our spines. For a nation to introduce hate crime laws is a very serious matter. As one Christian MSP, Murdo Fraser, has warned, the laws being proposed in Scotland would trigger a ‘full-frontal assault on free speech’.

If, as is the case in Scotland, the judge of acceptable speech ends up being the State, then that’s a far more serious proposition. The State is not neutral; it holds and evangelises various beliefs. The State in both Scotland and England holds to certain positions on issues like gender or sexuality, and it is not slow to promote those views.

The obvious point here is that evangelical Christians could end up on the wrong side of these laws. For example, under the Scottish Government’s new hate crime laws, will a Christian pastor who teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman be imprisoned? What about a Christian expressing a criticism of Islam? Or what if I say that I believe that God made humans male and female and, contrary to State wisdom, there are not 25+ genders?

The recent treatment of evangelist Franklin Graham highlights that these are not idle fears.

Historically, it is authoritarian regimes that rely on hate speech laws to suppress opposition and control the people. In many Islamic countries there are laws to prohibit negative criticisms of Mohammed. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union wanted to define hate speech. It never ends well.

We are supposed to be living in a democracy and at the heart of true democracy is the freedom to criticise, to accuse, to make criticisms of other systems of belief.

As Christians, how might we respond? Firstly, we can be honest and admit the existence of ‘hate speech’. Racism, sexism, insulting language, are all very real. And these challenges must not be minimised or ignored. James reminds us that the tongue is a ‘restless evil’ and compares it to the spark that can light a forest fire. We should, therefore, guard our tongues in recognition of the damage they can do.

Secondly, we must also acknowledge that hate speech and hate crime legislation cannot solve the real issue, which is sin in the human heart. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can deal with that. Freedom of expression means greater freedom to share the gospel. Therefore, we should champion free speech. In Scotland, the proposed law is a real danger.

So, thirdly, we must pray that MSPs see the wood for the trees and respond with effective, robust and proper scrutiny.

James Mildred

James Mildred is Head of Communications for CARE

*Editor’s Note: Sex is missing despite it being a protected characteristic in the 2010 Equality Act. The Scottish government is said to be considering how it would include ‘sex/gender’, and may introduce a specific offence of misogynistic harassment. Offences motivated by prejudice towards someone’s sex/gender are not at present considered by Scottish law to be hate crimes.