The Scottish government has recently introduced the 'Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill' which aims to criminalise sectarian chanting at football matches.
This is a disproportionate and dangerous attack on freedom of speech and will actually increase tensions amongst football fans.
Here are 10 reasons why the bill should be opposed.
1. The legislation makes a dangerous leap between words and actions. Societies have long made the distinction between thoughts and words on the one hand and actions and deeds on the other. This law assumes that offensive words inevitably lead to sectarian or violent deeds without any evidence whatsoever to prove that. Linking the sending of letter bombs to the singing of traditional rebel songs or shouting of loyalist chants is misleading and dangerous.
2. Existing criminal laws cover key offenses. While these news laws have been presented as a response to the violent events of last season, including death threats and attacks on the Celtic manager Neil Lennon, all these offenses are already covered by existing criminal law.
3. All laws should be measured and proportionate. This law could result in football fans serving jail terms greater than those for rape or violent crime for an offensive chant at a football game. This is clearly disproportionate.
4. The laws are a 'victim's charter'. By allowing the victim ‟to define what passes as offensive" the Scottish parliament is creating a victims charter which will encourage football fans to accuse rival fans of causing offence.
5. Conflicts have been sorted out between the clubs without the need for outside intervention. Both the media and the authorities have exaggerated and sensationalized many of the disputes at Celtic/Rangers games. Within a couple of hours of the televised ill-tempered spat between Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist at an old Firm game the two managers had issued a statement saying that they had resolved their differences and made up.
6. These laws will increase rather than decrease tensions amongst fans. You do not need to go to Celtic/Rangers games to see football rivalry in action. Yet now Celtic and Rangers fans will be able to seize on these new laws as another stick with which to beat their rivals. Even before the laws have come into place there are unhealthy examples of rival fans scouring each other's websites searching for crimes to report to the police.
7. These laws are anti-working class. There is a strong whiff of anti-working class prejudice in the language and tone used by politicians and commentators supporting these laws. Such has been the demonization of fans over the past few years that it's now acceptable to talk about Celtic and Rangers fans en masse as potential bigots, wife beaters and parcel bombers. In the name of reducing offensive behavior political leaders have given carte blanche to insult football fans.
8. Sectarian chanting is more than ever restricted to games. Part of the problem with the disproportionate nature of these laws is the notion that sectarianism is a bigger problem than ever in Scottish society. While many football fans might indulge in some traditional sectarian chants from the terraces in the course of a 90 minute game, most now go back home or into work the next day with partners and workmates of a different religious persuasion.
9. Football terraces are not for the faint hearted. Despite the many attempts to gentrify football in recent years it remains the case that football stadiums are a place of high passions and uncouth shouting. Apart from the problem of excluding sections of society whose idea of fun is not standing for 90 minutes surrounded by people shouting, noisy football fans do not harm anyone and bringing heavy handed policing and draconian criminal laws onto these terraces will not protect anyone in wider society.
10. These laws are an attack on the fundamental right of all citizens to free speech. Anyone who knows or cares about protecting the right to free speech will know that the test of support for this principle always lies in whether you are prepared to extend it to those whose speech you do not like or agree with . As Voltaire once said, "I detest what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it". Of course there is nothing noble about much that is shouted at football games but free speech means just that - the freedom to say what you want to say without fear of censorship or repression.