Scottish Hate Crime Law Takes Effect as Critics Warn It Will Stifle Speech

A sweeping law targeting hate speech went into effect in Scotland on Monday, promising protection against threats and abuse but drawing criticism that it could have a chilling effect on free speech.

The law, which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2021, expands protections for marginalized groups and creates a new charge of “stirring up hatred,” which makes it a criminal offense to communicate or behave in a way that “a reasonable person would consider to be threatening, abusive or insulting.”

A conviction could lead to a fine and a prison sentence of up to seven years.

The protected classes as defined in the law include age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity. Racial hatred was omitted because it is already covered by a law from 1986. The new law also does not include women among the protected groups; a government task force has recommended that misogyny be addressed in separate legislation.

J.K. Rowling, the “Harry Potter” author who has been criticized as transphobic for her comments on gender identity, said the law was “wide open to abuse by activists,” and took issue with its omission of women.

Ms. Rowling, who lives in Edinburgh, said in a lengthy social media post on Monday that Scotland’s Parliament had placed “higher value on the feelings of men performing their idea of femaleness, however misogynistically or opportunistically, than on the rights and freedoms of actual women and girls.”“I’m currently out of the country, but if what I’ve written here qualifies as an offense under the terms of the new act,” she added, “I look forward to being arrested when I return to the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment.”The new law has long had the support of Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, but it has raised concerns about the effect it might have on free speech. Mr. Yousaf, who was Scotland’s justice secretary when the bill was passed, was asked directly on Monday about the criticism from Ms. Rowling and others who oppose the law.

“It is not Twitter police. It is not activists, it is not the media. It is not, thank goodness, even politicians who decide ultimately whether or not crime has been committed,” Mr. Yousaf told Sky News. He said that it would be up to “the police to investigate and the crown, and the threshold for criminality is incredibly high.”

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