Scottish bishops warn against ‘cancel culture’ and affirm ‘freedom to disagree’

Scottish bishops warn against ‘cancel culture’ and affirm ‘freedom to disagree’

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during an event in Brussels Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP.)

Scotland’s bishops have decried ‘cancel culture’ and warned that freedom of expression and belief could be at risk under proposed hate crime legislation.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Scotland’s bishops have decried ‘cancel culture’ and warned that freedom of expression and belief could be at risk under proposed hate crime legislation.

The proposed Hate Crime and Public Order Bill aims to modernize, consolidate, and expand hate crime legislation in Scotland.

The bill introduces a new offence of stirring up hatred, possession of inflammatory material, and new protection of freedom of expression provisions in relation to religion and sexual orientation.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland said criminalizing conduct is “a serious step that should not be taken lightly. And any new law must be carefully weighed against fundamental freedoms, such as the right to free speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”

The bishops claim that the proposed threshold for an offence might be considered “disproportionately low.”

They also expressed concern that the prohibition against possessing inflammatory material “could render material such as the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other texts such as Bishops’ Conference of Scotland submissions to government consultations, as being inflammatory under the new provision.”

“For example, in a recent submission to the Scottish Government on proposed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004, the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland stated the Catholic Church’s understanding of the human person, including the belief that sex and gender are not fluid and changeable, and that male and female are complementary and ordered towards the creation of new life. Such pronouncements, which are widely held, might be perceived by others as an abuse of their own, personal worldview and likely to stir up hatred,” the bishops’ submission continued.

The bishops’ pointed out that prominent public figures have been accused of hate and of transphobia for making the argument that a man cannot become a woman and vice versa, alluding to online attacks on Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling – a resident of Scotland – after she published an open letter defending the biological definition of ‘woman.’

“Many have also been accused of hate for using pronouns corresponding with an individual’s biological or birth sex. The freedom to express these arguments and beliefs must be protected,” the bishops said.

“The growth of what some describe as the ‘cancel culture’ – hunting down those who disagree with prominent orthodoxies with the intention to expunge the non-compliant from public discourse and with callous disregard for their livelihoods – is deeply concerning,” they continued. “No single section of society has dominion over acceptable and unacceptable speech or expression. Whilst the legislature and judiciary must create and interpret laws to maintain public order it must do so carefully, weighing in fundamental freedoms and allowing for reasonably held views, the expression of which is not intended to cause harm.”

The bishops said Scotland “cannot turn to censorship but must instead accept the divergent views and multitude of arguments inhabiting our society on a wide range of issues and allow for respectful debate.”

In figures released in June, Scotland saw an increase of 4 percent of hate crimes this year, with most of them based on race, although sexual orientation was the second most cited cause.

After the release of the figures, Scotland Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said the government “will not stand for prejudice or discrimination of any kind.”

“We are determined to do everything it takes to ensure Scotland is a place where there is zero tolerance of hate crime,” Yousaf said.

James Kelly, the Scottish Labour Party’s justice spokesman, said he had “significant concerns” about the proposed law.

“A crime will be committed if an individual behaves in a ‘threatening, abusive or insulting manner’ or if they communicate ‘threatening, abusive or insulting material’ – whether they have intended to ‘stir-up hatred’ or not,” he said.

“Under these proposals, a person can be criminalized for behavior which another person finds insulting, whether they have meant it or not, which sets an alarming legal precedent and differs from law in England and Wales under the UK Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006) – where intent is required,” Kelly added. “The terminology within these proposals is concerning, especially around the use of ‘insulting’ – which is subjective and could cause serious legal confusion.”

Both the Scottish Police Federation and the Law Society of Scotland have also objected to the legislation, claiming it is “vague” and threatens free speech.

Anthony Horan, who heads the bishops’ Catholic Parliamentary Office, said the Church “believes that fundamental freedoms must be protected, as the right to exercise freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is ‘an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person’ and ‘a right that must be recognized and protected by civil authority, always within the limits of the common good and public order’.”

He added that courts in Scotland have affirmed that “the freedom to shock, offend and disturb, as well as the contentious and unwelcome are protected by the right to freedom of expression,” and the bishops in their submission “have declared that freedom of expression provisions must be robust enough to protect the freedom to disagree.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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