Police Scotland: We won't target comedians under new hate crime law | But stand-up shows still come under its scope © Via rawpixels.com

Police Scotland: We won't target comedians under new hate crime law

But stand-up shows still come under its scope

Police Scotland has denied it will specifically target comedians under controversial new hate crime laws.

Legislation introduced by the SNP and due to come into force on April 1 creates a new offence of stirring up hatred on certain grounds, including age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity.

And today’s Glasgow-based Herald newspaper reported that officers were told  they should target actors and comedians under the new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act.

Training material obtained by the newspaper described how threatening or abusive material might be communicated, citing examples such as social media posts and ‘public performance of a play’.

The phrasing prompted fears police could act against comedians delivering material that may be considered offensive, with echoes of authoritarian regimes.

Police Scotland based the slide on the Scottish Government notes that accompany the legislation, explaining how communicating hated could be defined.

In a statement, the force insisted: ‘Police Scotland is not instructing officers to target actors, comedians, or any other people or groups.

‘The training material was based on the Scottish Government's explanatory notes which accompany the legislation. This included examples of a range of scenarios where offences might take place, but this does not mean officers have been told to target these situations or locations.’

However, there are still fears the new law could be used to try to silence comedians or plays that some people find offensive – or cause performers to self-censor – as  Police Scotland had perviously promised to investigate every hate crime complaint reported.

And as the legislation makes clear, people performing on stage are still within the scope of the new law, which makes it an offence for someone to use  words that a reasonable person would consider threatening, abusive or intended to stir up hatred.

There is a clause which allows ‘discussion or criticism of matters relating to age, disability, sexual orientation, transgender identity, variations in sex characteristics’.

However, a similar provision protecting religious criticism from being considered hate speech allows for ‘antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult towards’ faith groups – phrasing that was not extended to the other protected characteristics. That has prompted some observers to fear ridiculing, for example, someone’s transgender identity would be a hate crime.

Writer JK Rowling has slammed the law as ‘ludicrous’ and vowed not to delete her old social media messages targeting trans campagners that may fall foul of it.

Speaking of the threat to freedom of speech, Police Scotland said: ‘Officers balance the protections people have under human rights legislation against other laws every day.

‘Our training for the new Act therefore reminds officers of their human rights obligations and it reflects all aspects of the new legislation, including the protection it includes around freedom of expression’.

Comedian Simon Evans today criticised the new law as ‘brand new untested legislative protocol that could end [a comedian’s] career before it begins by branding their routines and scripts as "hate speech".’

When the legislation was first drafted, more than 20 artists including comedians Rowan Atkinson and Elaine C Smith  and novelists Chris Brookmyre and Val McDermid, signed an open letter calling on ministers to think again.

Scotland’s First Minister Humza Yousaf, who drew up the law while Justice Secretay, has always denied it curtails free speech, saying it set the bar ‘very high’ for what’s deemed abusive.

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Published: 19 Mar 2024

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