A parliamentary bill in Scotland intends to “tackle sectarian hatred and other offensive and threatening behaviour” related to football matches, but critics are worried about its implications for fans’ freedom of expression.
The proposed Act would create two new criminal offences.
The offence of “offensive behaviour at regulated football matches” criminalises offensive or threatening behaviour in relation to football matches that is likely to incite public disorder. The offence of threatening communications creates an offence of making communications which contain threats of serious violence or which contain threats intended to incite religious hatred.[Source: Scottish.parliament.uk PDF]
In his recently released guidelines, Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland states that the new offence is “not intended to infringe, prohibit or restrict legitimate freedom of expression nor freedom to practice and promote a religion”.
Such freedoms allow for satirical comment, criticism and expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of its adherents or any other belief system or practices of its adherents. While these freedoms are not absolute, this offence will only interfere with them where a threat is made.
But where, or how, to draw the line between a justifiable expression of insult and an illegal threat? Those experts submitting evidence, such as the historian Professor Tom Devine, have identified some of the complexities at play. The Scotsman reports:
Prof Devine cited the example of Celtic supporters going south to watch their team play Manchester United and singing songs which they think deal with Irish freedom or British oppression. “Is that offensive or is it a statement of political belief?” he said.
All Parliamentary submissions and correspondence can be found here. The bill must pass the Stage 2 deadline by 11 November of this year; it will then be debated by MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.
My piece for Index on Censorship, published last month, considers the issues in more depth. Read it at this link.