Humanists welcome changes to protect freedom of expression in Scottish Hate Crime Bill

24 September, 2020

Humanists UK and Humanist Society Scotland (HSS) have welcomed the Scottish Government’s announcement that it will change the draft Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, so that prosecutors must prove ‘intention’ before they can convict someone of inciting hatred. The announcement follows after HSS led a coalition of over 20 leading individuals and organisations calling for the amendment, with support from Humanists UK.

Under the previous proposals, someone could have been convicted for the new offence of ‘stirring up’ hatred if their actions or conduct had been ‘perceived’ as inciting hostility. This would have run counter to the internationally recognised legal standards on controlling hate speech, the UN Rabat Plan, which states any law must ensure intent is proven.

The new proposals resolve this problem by introducing the requirement of intent, but still would still fall short of protections for freedom of expression with regard to religious discussion that exist in England and Wales, by failing to distinguish between legitimate criticism of particular religions or beliefs and hate speech directed towards particular individuals.

In a statement Scotland’s Justice Minister Humza Yousaf said ‘I recognise that there is a real risk that if the offences don’t require intent to stir up hatred, people may self-censor their activities through a perception that the operation of this aspect of the offences may be used to prosecute what are entirely legitimate acts of expression.’ He also said ‘I am keen to find common ground and will look at other areas of the Bill for possible reform’.

In a tweet, Mr Yousaf separately thanked Humanists UK and HSS for their criticism and suggested amendments to the bill.

Welcoming the commitment, Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland said:

‘This is a very welcome move by the Justice Secretary and shows that the government was serious when they said they were listening to concerns. The change to make the new stirring up offences ‘with intent’ only is something we have consistently asked for. This ensures best practice on intent from the UN Rabat Plan on incitement to hatred laws and shouldn’t see the law have a chilling effect on for example artistic freedom.

‘We will continue to engage with the government and opposition parties at the Scottish Parliament on other aspects of the bill that we have raised questions about.’

Humanist UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said: 

‘The freedom to question or criticise ideas and beliefs is fundamental to the functioning of open and progressive societies. This announcement is an important step forward in the protection of that liberty, and it is encouraging that the Government is willing to give further consideration to other areas for reform. We hope they will now go further and ensure that robust protections of freedom of speech exist in other aspects of the Bill.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read more about the Scottish Hate Crime Bill.

Read more about our work on freedom of expression. 

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