Humanists bring together artists, authors, journalists to call for changes to Scottish Hate Crime Bill

11 August, 2020

Photo: Marlusz Klunznlak

Humanist Society Scotland (HSS), supported by Humanists UK, has brought together a coalition of over 20 leading individuals and organisations from the world of arts, journalism, literature, comedy, politics and human rights to publish a joint letter to the Scottish Government calling for changes to the draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, to ensure that protections against hate crime do not limit the right to artistic expression or freedom of expression with regards to discussions of religious beliefs.

The coalition has raised concerns about the proposed lowering of the evidential threshold for ‘stirring up’ offences, where a person commits a crime if they encourage hatred towards someone or a group of people because of a protected characteristic, will have a serious chilling impact on freedom of expression. Under the current proposals, a prosecutor will no longer need to prove that the accused intended to stir up hatred. A conviction could instead be secured if it is perceived that the expression could have done so regardless of intent.

The Bill, in its current form, would, therefore, run counter to the international legal standards, such as the UN Rabat Plan on incitement to hatred, which states that any law controlling hate speech must ensure intent is proven.

The letter reads:

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.

We welcome the provisions to consolidate existing aggravated hate crimes and the repeal of the blasphemy law.

However, the Bill creates stirring up offences without any intent being examined; merely that the words, action, or artwork might do so. This offence could even be applied to being in possession of materials produced by someone else, where sharing the material could stir up hatred.

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.

Fraser Sutherland, Chief Executive, Humanist Society Scotland
Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK
Scottish PEN
Index on Censorship
Chris Brookmyre, novelist
Val McDermid, writer
Elaine C Smith, actor and comedian
Dame Seona Reid, arts administrator
Alan Bissett, playwright and novelist
Ruth Wishart, journalist and broadcaster
Andrew Panton, artistic director Dundee Rep / joint CEO Dundee Rep & Scottish Dance Theatre Ltd
Professor Maggie Kinloch, theatre director and chair of Humanist Society Scotland
Ariane Sherine, comedian and journalist
Joan Smith, writer and human rights activist
Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
Rowan Atkinson, actor and comedian
Professor A C Grayling, philosopher and author
Professor Timothy Garton Ash, historian and author of Free Speech
Nick Ross, television and radio presenter
Terry Anderson, Executive Director, Cartoonists Rights Network International
Gary McLelland, Chief Executive, Humanists International
Michael Connarty, former MP and former Chair of Parliamentary Humanist Group
Dr Evan Harris, former MP and former Vice-Chair of Parliamentary Humanist Group
Quilliam Foundation

Humanist Society Scotland’s Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland commented,

‘The Bill as proposed has behind it some sound intentions, however, it is clear from the broad support to our joint letter that concerns remain about poorly drafted provisions. The failure of the bill to require intent to be proven in court on some offences risks a significant chilling effect on free expression.’

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson commented,

‘We are happy to be supporting Humanist Society Scotland to secure important changes to this Bill to ensure that it guarantees freedom of religion or belief and expression.

‘There are well established and internationally recognised legal provisions for tackling hate speech and incitement, of which the Rabat Plan is a leading example, that have been developed to ensure that the right balance is struck between protection victims from these crimes and the right to express dissent. The Scottish Government should seek to ensure that this Bill is fully compliant with those standards.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan at or phone 07951 176 245.

Learn more about the work of Humanist Society Scotland.

Read more about our work on hate crime laws.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.