‘Je suis Charlie’: Time to start again with the Hate Crime Bill – Murdo Fraser

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill contains some measures that are worthy of support, but others that need to be reconsidered to safeguard free speech, writes Murdo Fraser MSP.

Wednesday, 9th September 2020, 10:23 am
A woman walks past a painting by French street artist and painter Christian Guemy, known as C215, in tribute to members of Charlie Hebdo newspaper who were killed by Islamist extremist gunmen in January 2015 (Picture: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman walks past a painting by French street artist and painter Christian Guemy, known as C215, in tribute to members of Charlie Hebdo newspaper who were killed by Islamist extremist gunmen in January 2015 (Picture: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images)

This week the trial continues in Paris of 14 individuals accused of playing a part in the deadly attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo back in January 2015. On that day, militant Islamists shot dead 12 people in and around Charlie Hebdo’s Paris office, following the publication of satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

In the wake of that horrific attack, there was an outbreak of mass solidarity throughout the world, with millions of people marching to display the slogan “Je suis Charlie” in defence of the principle of free speech. By a coincidence of events, today the Scottish Parliament will have its first opportunity to express a view on the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill, in a Conservative-sponsored debate.

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There is much in this Bill that is worthy of support, including the abolition of the blasphemy law, and the consolidation of existing hate crime legislation. But the Bill is controversial, because of the introduction of a new criminal offence around “stirring up hatred” against protected groups. Numerous voices – lawyers, journalist, writers, faith groups, human rights activists – have combined to condemn this new proposal as an assault on free speech.

It is entirely conceivable that if the Charlie Hebdo magazine were to publish its cartoons in Scotland once this law comes into effect, it could face prosecution for stirring up hatred against a protected group, namely the followers of a particular religion. Moreover, under Section 5 of the Bill it is an offence simply to be in possession of inflammatory material. So, having in one’s home a copy of an offensive publication could lead to prosecution.

It would be a rich irony if just five years on from us marching in solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo victims, with us all proudly proclaiming “Je suis Charlie”, we now introduced a law that could see a prosecution here for publication of the same material.

The right to free speech is fundamental to any open liberal and democratic society. The SNP Government needs to think again, listen to all the voices raised in opposition, and step back from the dangerous parts of this Bill before it goes any further.

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