The SNP’s offensive against free speech

A draconian law passed in Scotland yesterday blurs the distinction between hurtful words and harmful deeds.

Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics

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Yesterday, the Scottish National Party (SNP) pushed through a new law stipulating that people can be imprisoned for things they say. So it’s a good moment to reflect on what the principle of free speech means in practice.

While most of us claim to be proud to live in a liberal, tolerant society, it seems that our tolerance has limits. These limits are defined clearly in the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Bill, which seeks to criminalise ‘offensive’ songs and chants by football fans – especially fans of the two Glasgow clubs that dominate Scottish football, Celtic and Rangers. With prison sentences of up to five years, simply for things that are said or sung, this is one of the most draconian laws ever introduced. But aside from protests by church groups and football fans, opposition has been muted and free-speech advocates have been surprisingly quiet.

The concept of free speech is not a modern one. Way back in 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote his seminal essay ‘On Liberty’ in which he argued against any restriction on the communication and discussion of any doctrine and opinion, ‘however immoral it may be considered’. Put simply, the content of speech – no matter how distasteful to some – could never justify its suppression.

Through his formulation of the ‘harm principle’, Mill argued that individual adults should be free to say and do what they wish as long as they do not harm another person. While he acknowledged that words can be hurtful, Mill argued that the wider benefits of the adoption of free speech must be weighed against protecting people from distress.

The new Scottish law is the antithesis of everything that Mill, and other prominent free-speech defenders like Voltaire, stood for. The thinking behind the new law places the protection of people from offence above the principle of free speech. But instead of admitting that this is a state infringement on free speech, Scotland’s politicians have sought to justify their intervention on the grounds that words can, and do, cause real ‘harm’.

So why have Scottish government ministers decided that a bunch of football fans singing songs that have been sung for decades now constitutes a harm requiring government intervention? Why will fans who sing songs and shout chants during games become criminals overnight? The answer lies partly in a more generalised culture in which the idea of a society of resilient, rational, robust individuals has been replaced by the notion of fragile, damaged people in need of protection from each other. In Scotland, the idea that football fans are a thick-skinned bunch who can put up with abuse from rivals for 90 minutes every Saturday has been replaced by the assumption that the majority of fans are potential victims at permanent risk of suffering offence or psychological damage.

One of the more depressing aspects of the debate around the new laws is the way in which a new generation of football fans is being socialised into acting out the roles ascribed to them. Because the police and government have failed to elaborate on which words and songs will constitute a criminal offence, fans are allowed to define this themselves – and this has predictable consequences. Celtic fans I know, who have happily traded insults with rival fans for years, are suddenly feeling ‘offended’ by stupid Rangers songs about the Irish famine and are actively reporting incidents to the police. Meanwhile, people involved in drawing up the new laws admit that there are circumstances in which making the sign of the cross could be perceived by Rangers fans as intimidating and aggressive. The more those in authority talk about words as ‘harmful’, the more football fans start to define themselves as being harmed by words they do not like.

The tendency for words to be defined as harmful and damaging is further reinforced by the way politicians and commentators who support the new law constantly blur the lines between words and deeds. Roseanna Cunningham, the minister in charge of implementing this Bill, thinks nothing of referring to football chants and parcel bombs in the same sentence, inferring that one obviously leads to the other. In this way, the laws can be justified by reference to the physical assault on Celtic manager Neil Lennon and parcel bombs sent to Lennon and other high-profile Scottish Catholics earlier this year. The fact that these are clearly acts rather than words is lost, as is the fact that existing laws already allow for the perpetrators to be prosecuted without the need for new legislation. But blurring the distinction between words and deeds – and the suggestion that singing songs in a football stadium can lead directly to violent attacks outside it – has allowed Scotland’s political leaders to win wide support for the idea that some words must be subject to bans and restrictions.

The more we accept the idea that the state should curb harmful and offensive language, the further we retreat from Mill’s plea to protect free speech even when we find words distressing. Mill’s suggestion that adults should be free to say whatever they want, short of causing harm, meant something in societies that defined harm in physical rather than psychological terms and that judged humans as capable of making that distinction.

The society we live in today is very different. A newspaper editor, reacting to my objections to the new laws, recently pointed out to me that Mill and Voltaire are long dead. He is right, of course, and nor can I even argue that we can simply quote their support for free speech in a historic period in which words have been redefined as harmful and humans are fragile people in need of protection from offence. However, there has never been a more important time to revive the spirit of these free-speech champions. The laws that were passed yesterday are a dangerous attack on free speech and civil liberties and on Scotland’s proud reputation for tolerance. But the debate continues and anyone who cares about free speech and tolerance should take up this particular fight.

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.

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Topics Politics


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