What Is Scotland's New Hate Crime Law, And Why Is It Controversial?

Critics fear free speech is in jeopardy as first minister says people will be protected from the "rising tide of hatred".
Humza Yousaf and JK Rowling.
Humza Yousaf and JK Rowling.

A new law to tackle hate speech came into force in Scotland on Monday amid concerns about how it will be policed and the impact on free speech.

Scotland’s first minister Humza Yousaf said the new law would deal with a “rising tide of hatred” as JK Rowling challenged the police to arrest her under the new act after making a series of posts on social media calling trans women men, including convicted prisoners, trans activists and other public figures.

What is the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act?

The law consolidates existing legislation and introduces a series of new hate crimes.

It creates a new offence of stirring up hatred against protected characteristics including age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity. These additional characteristics add to racial hatred, which was already banned under a law dating from 1986. The maximum sentence is seven years in prison.

The legislation was passed by the Scottish parliament almost three years ago but has been delayed by wrangling over its implementation, with Holyrood voting to strengthen freedom of speech provisions.

The legislation does not specifically ban hatred against women. The Scottish government says that will be tackled by a standalone law against misogyny, and it was included in Yousaf’s programme for government last September.

What do critics say?

There has been criticism of the new measures among “gender-critical” feminists, who argue that rights for trans women should not come at the expense of those who are born biologically female.

In a series of posts on X on Monday, Harry Potter author Rowling called the law “ludicrous” as she referred to several prominent trans women as men. Misgendering could be an offence under the new law in some circumstances.

“I’m currently out of the country, but if what I’ve written here qualifies as an offence under the terms of the new act, I look forward to being arrested when I return to the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment,” Rowling wrote.

Rowling has been heavily involved in a battle with the transgender community, who accuses her of being transphobic. The author denies the accusation, saying she wants to defend women’s rights.

How has the police responded?

Police bodies are concerned the law will trigger a flood of reports over online abuse.

David Kennedy, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the law, which requires officers to assess “emotive” subjects, would “cause havoc with trust in police in Scotland” and would “certainly” reduce it.

He added: “Our biggest complaint right from the beginning of this is there’s been no extra money given to the police service to provide the extra training.

“It’s another concern for us that it’s more work on police officers and less training. Two hours of online training is all we’ve had.”

What does the Scottish government say?

The Scottish National Party-led government says the legislation includes free speech protections, including a specific guarantee that people can still “ridicule or insult” religion.

First minister Yousaf has defended the legislation, saying there has been a “rising tide of hatred against people because of their protected characteristics” in recent years.

“I’m very proud of the hate crime act,” he said, adding it will “protect people from hatred, while at the same time protecting people in terms protecting people in terms of their freedom of expression”.


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