New Scottish law offers freedom from being offended, but at what cost?

It may be a direct outworking of the SNP’s unparalleled success in the last Scottish Parliamentary elections in Glasgow that it has so hastily moved its proposed Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill. Sectarianism in Scotland is, by and large, a Glaswegian problem. But, as Kevin Rooney notes on Spiked:

The Bill introduces two new offences. The first, that of ‘offensive behaviour’, will cover ‘sectarian and other offensive chanting and threatening behaviour related to football which is likely to cause public disorder’ and also ‘expressing or inciting religious, racial or other forms of hatred’. The second new offence, relating to ‘threatening communications’, will ‘strengthen current law covering threats of serious harm and criminalise threats inciting religious hatred’.

The politicians rushing these laws through tell us they are designed to tackle the highly publicised and ugly events that marred last year’s football season – including the sending of parcel bombs and bullets to high-profile Celtic fans, and the death threats and televised attack on Celtic manager Neil Lennon. But what none of us will have the time to ask is why new laws are needed to tackle parcel bombs and death threats when such crimes are already covered by existing laws.

Kevin further notes that that Police will be given huge licence in determining what’s offensive and what’s not:

Strathclyde assistant chief constable Campbell Corrigan, who will be enforcing the new laws, has refused to list the songs police will classify as sectarian, insisting ‘it’s much simpler than that… If an individual or individuals are engaging in singing hate songs likely to provoke a reaction from those they are directed against then we will take action – either at the match or afterwards.’

Campbell’s words suggest that whether you end up in prison or not could depend on the reaction of the person or people who feel offended. Speaking in support of the new laws, Conservative MSP and former head of the Scottish Tories, David McLetchie, spoke for the now popular right of the victim to define what constitutes offence: ‘In the past this has been looked at very narrowly in the context of religious hatred. Speaking as a Hearts supporter I regard songs or chants in support of the IRA as just as offensive as songs sung by Rangers fans that are abusive about Catholicism.’

Others have suggested that the law as currently envisaged could mean some one signing the British (or Irish) national anthem in a way deemed aggressive or offensive to someone else could find themselves in the jug.

Adds: Courtesy of The Dissenter below, this interview with Shami Chakrabati who just about 12 mins in says “the one right that none of us should ever have is the right not to be offended.” She goes on to talk about the reciprocity of rights and responsibilities as articulated by Tom Paine…

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  • Ah Mr Fealty…welcome to Middle Age.
    A sure sign of Middle Age is when you cant decide if a “Right” is really a “Right” at all.
    It manifests itself in generations.
    Has a woman the right to work?
    Has a woman the right to have paid maternity leave?
    Well of course.
    But the right to have it for several years?

    I merely choose this example of “rights” being an ongoing process and sooner or later we all reach the “hmmmm” moment. Gay Rights? Gay Marriage? Gay Adoption?
    We hold on to our liberal credentials only so long as we dont reach that “hmmmmm” moment.
    The rights of a woman not to be harrassed at work? Obviously.
    The rights not to be offended by a dirty joke.?
    The right for the onus of proving good intent on the person making the joke?

    Surely we have a better society when people think.
    If it causes offence……its offensive. Simple as. Cant those Fen**** take a wee joke?

    Its the Scottish “lets get alongerism” moment.
    Lets all get along……….but now? or only after the sectarianism is cleared up.?
    Chicken and egg?
    If we all get along….there will be no sectarianism
    Or if there is no sectarianism…..we will all get along.

    Its a simple Good Manners thing.
    If people dont do it voluntarily…they need a little encouragement. By the law.
    And isnt it funny that with all its Catholic support, the Labour Party could never do this even if it had a landslide.

  • This is categorised as ‘doing something’, but any behaviour that is threatening is already covered by ‘breach of peace’ etc. There is no right not to be offended. Any song, even Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star can be offensive if sung in such a way as to be agressive and threatening – but it is the behvaviour and not the song at issue, and always should be.

    Any local derby, anywhere on these islands, is likely to result in behaviour that seeks to insult the other side and put the other’s players off their game: where do you stop along this line. Is ‘old firm’ rivalry any worse? Probably not. Ending segregated schools probably more fundamental to addressing the issue, but that would be more than a few words on paper and take serious political courage.

  • By the way Alex Salmond is a Hearts supporter also.
    A rather surprising number of people in public life in Scotland CLAIM not to support the Old Firm.
    Arguably the right wing credentials of Rangers are bigger box office poison than homely good guys Celtic.
    There are actually sites out there that list celebrity supporters.
    But too often Scottish celebs use Clyde and Partick Thistle as evidence of their cultural superiority. If every celeb who supported Clyde and Partick REALLY supported them, their grounds would be overflowing.
    So credit to Billy Connolly, Jamsie Cotter and Mrs Rab C Nesbitt for sticking to their colours……and er Midge Ure apparently.
    But a Glasgow thing?
    Ive actually been to a Hearts (Nicky Campbell) and Hibs (Proclaimers, Andy Murray) game. It wasnt short on sectarian chanting.
    And apparently the same in Dundee where the Catholics support Dundee United (Lorraine Kelly).
    But the real question is whether RELIGIOUS or ETHNIC intolerance is merely the same as POLITICAL intolerance.
    I dont know.
    If I askeda Celtic or Rangers supporter, Id get a different answer.

  • Mick Fealty


    What has any of that to do with the article in question? There’s a rather precise issue at question here. If you have nothing further to say about it then you are not obliged to contribute. BTW, Linlithgow is much nearer Edinburgh than Glasgow, so it is hardly surprising he’s a Tynecastle man.

  • Eglise en bois

    Personally I would love to have seen the OO march to the “Soldier’s song”, even in an agressive manner, to see if residents groups would be offended. Just for a laugh of course.

    As has already been said most of the required legislation is already in place, this will simply make it easier to muddy the waters and a good “Human Rights” lawyer will be able to tie the police and the courts in knots over a definition of “aggressive and offensive”.

    Personally I’m not normally a supporter of much of what Shami Chakrabati says but on this one she is spot on, there is no right not to be offended and unfortunately some of our legislators believe there is or at least should be. – Bad law.

    Dou=ing something is always requred (except here of course where doing nothing is perfectly acceptable) but doing the right think is far superior to some of the suggestions and now proposals that have been made.

  • Into the west

    that audio doesn’t work.
    I’m mixed up about all this ….
    Have you got the right to be offended?

  • tacapall

    As has already been said most of the required legislation is already in place, this will simply make it easier to muddy the waters and a good “Human Rights” lawyer will be able to tie the police and the courts in knots over a definition of “aggressive and offensive”.

    I think most sane people know exactly what this new legislation covers, a scenario such as the OO marching to the soldiers song will never happen but would Catholics have a right to feel offended if they marched to the Billy Boys, up to our necks in fenian blood. If people have no right not to be offended then whats wrong with calling black people niggers or why did Prince Harry apoligise for calling someone from Pakistan a Paki, the only people who would be against this legislation would be those who chant sectarian songs or wish to go out of their way to try to offend.

  • A simple philosophy should be instilled in children from an early age:

    Respect For Others.

  • Mick Fealty

    Kevin comments:

    Regular readers of spiked will know that these laws are the culmination of a steady and growing campaign of demonisation and criminalisation of Scottish football fans. Over the past few years, fans have increasingly been treated as naughty children issued with a list of house rules governing every aspect of our behaviour: don’t drink in the ground, don’t drink outside the ground, don’t swear, don’t wear that t-shirt, don’t unfurl that banner, don’t say that, and so on.

    There is little doubt that Celtic and Rangers fans are discussed with thinly veiled disdain and contempt by the chattering classes at Glasgow’s polite dinner parties. Too often the middle classes get away with describing us as sectarian scum who beat our wives if our team lose to our rivals. But now that prejudice against fans has been turned into a law.

  • Mick Fealty

    Where is the statute that prevents anyone using the word nigger?

  • I think most sane people know exactly what this new legislation covers…

    No, read it.
    There are loopholes galore which illustrate that the authors of the legislation themselves are not quite sure what it will/should cover, for example- *aggressive* *crossing* of oneself could – given those loopholes – be actioned upon.

    In Scotland and in particuliar with the Mould Firm there is a serious issue (illustrated here today, as if illustration was further needed but this whole legislation smacks of populist tokenism which will not address the core underlying reasons behind the problem. One Celtic fan charged for sectarian *banter*, there’ll be literally hundreds if not thousands more on Facebook and Twitter tonight writing comments which are as bad if not worse than what he typed in.

  • pippakin


    Laws already exist to cover such offences. I think the problem may be that the new laws may be open to misinterpretation. In England anti terrorism laws were used by some councils to spy on people.

  • tacapall

    How many people have been murdered just for wearing a celtic top ? How many other football managers get attacked on the pitch, how many recieve bullets, parcel bombs, death threats It seems other peoples right to offend is more important than someones right not to be offended.

    No Mick theres no statute forbidding anyone saying Nigger, but in all honesty would you go up to a black person who you dont know and say it to him, if not why not ?

  • Mick Fealty


    I wouldn’t. The problem is that you are mixing social convention and law, which is what I think is where the primary difficulty with the framing this statute arises from. The social objects may be laudable, but the means are dysfunctional.

    Kevin’s point is worth pondering too. Where similar laws extended to England, could a Villa supporter caught on video be banged away for calling Birmingham fans Blue noses? Portsmouth fans locked up for calling Saints fans Scummers?

    The problem is not as Pip suggests elision, but that the law would quickly make an ass of itself. That’s beside Kevin’s point that you cannot deal with the sectarianism within Scots/Glaswegian (or Northern Irish) society by picking on football fans to salve everyone else’s conscience.

  • tacapall

    I dont know if it would solve the sectarianism within Scots/Glaswegian (or Northern Irish) society but its a start, at least they are attempting to tackle it unlike some of our own politicians here who actually excuse those who engage in it. I dont think you can use the Villa, Birmingham anology as well its not about Celtic/Rangers its about Catholics/protestants, Cliftonville/Linfield, when was the last time you heard of a hand granade being thrown at the rivals of a Villa or Birmingham match.

  • I dont think you can use the Villa, Birmingham anology as well its not about Celtic/Rangers its about Catholics/protestants, Cliftonville/Linfield, when was the last time you heard of a hand granade being thrown at the rivals of a Villa or Birmingham match.

    There was once a petrol bomb thrown at West Ham fans by Newcastle supporters… at the Leazes End, actually inside St James Park. There are numerous other episodes where opposing fans have been crippled, brain-damaged and even killed, so providing examples of violence to show the uniqueness of the Scottish/N.Irish situation proves nothing.

  • ayeYerMa


  • ayeYerMa

    Voltaire would also be going nuts about this!:

    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

    Can’t see anything like this ever having a chance in hell of being passed in places like the US either.

  • tacapall

    Oneill were those fans crippled, brain-damaged or killed because of the team they support or because of their religion ? I assume you know of other football club directors engaging in sectarian chanting at dinner parties, West Ham or Newcastle players being targeted while playing for their national team. This is about religion nothing else.

    Sunday Tribune 20/12/98

    “It wasn’t hooligans in blue scarves that killed off Belfast Celtic half a century ago, it was society constructed to hooligan specifications”.

    Now thankfully some people have the courage to try and change that society it is still with us, hopefully those who rule up in Stormont will have the same courage.

  • Mick Fealty

    Right at this point it behoves me to ask if there is a lawyer in the house?


    Are you arguing that it’s okay to bring in an unenforceable law because it means well?

  • tacapall

    Mick whats the difference between singing Billy boys at a rangers and Celtic match and this –

  • Oneill were those fans crippled, brain-damaged or killed because of the team they support or because of their religion ? I assume you know of other football club directors engaging in sectarian chanting at dinner parties, West Ham or Newcastle players being targeted while playing for their national team. This is about religion nothing else

    West Ham or Newcastle players being targeted while playing for their national team.

    Yes. England players to name only four- Beckham, Gary Neville because of Utd, Barnes and Anderson have been targetted by their *own* supporters because of their club or colour. Northern Ireland and Scotland are not unique

    For the individuals concerned, the fact that they’ve been maimed or worst because of the team they support rather than their religion will make little difference really.

    And in my opinion, to issue a death threat against someone merely because they play for Utd as opposed to Leeds or City is exactly the same as issuing a death threat to someone because they play for Celtic/Rangers.

    The point surely is making the climate “uncomfortable” as possible for those who step over the line? This law can’t be enforced to achieve that target simply because:

    a) there aren’t the cops available to control the amount of online venom (as aparallel example, NI has 2, both apparently now on holiday according to Talkback today)
    b) it hasn’t been specific enough in covering all loopholes open to subjective interpretation.

    Any defence lawyer worth his salt will run his coach and horse through this law.

  • Mick Fealty

    Tac, you keep moving away from the point at issue: which is the fitness of the law not the problem it’s intended to deal with.

  • Into the west

    what do you about scotland’s shame?
    legislation or education?

  • tacapall

    Oneill its like speeding, illegal but not everyone gets charged, just those who are caught, doing 60 mph in a 50 mph speed zone would be deemed a lesser offence than doing 100 mph in the same zone ,some people if you’ve got the right money or are in positions of power even get off because of supposed loopholes but at the end of the day its the law and its illegal for reasons similar to this new legislation – Lose control and someone/people could get killed or seriously injured.

  • AaronM

    I can foresee that there may be a few grey areas with this one, freedom of speech for one. If some one is spouting sectarian abuse, why be offended, they ,r only idiots, just dont listen to them, you can only be offended if want to be and some people just love to be offended!

  • Into The West – apologies. Windows IE is providing diffs as there has been two or three upgrades since the video and the Economist clearly hasn’t updated the code. Try using Firefox. It works fine on that.

  • Nunoftheabove

    Surely this is an attempt to simply corral the worst headline-grabbing aspects of old firm rivalry into a corner where the ‘nutters’ can be pilloried and scapegoated and the chattering classes can roll their eyes, tut tut and get back to maintaining the sectarian society which already exists in Scotland, content that it’s nothing to do with them or, heaven forbid, separate schooling on religious grounds etc.

    Secondly, forget about anyone not having the right to be offended by what anyone else says or sings for a second. Whether one chooses to be, or in fact is offended), one has personal responsibility for one’s own actions in response to those words, tunes etc or is that concept now passé too ?

    If someone can call be a *^%$£”* $%^&* because they don’t like the look of my face, my skin colour, the colour of my football top or what they regard as my offensive religious or political beliefs or repellant ethnic origin, then that’s one thing. How I choose to respond to that is my own choice. The drop-down list of possible reactions isn’t that lengthy. I would wholeheartedly reserve the moral right to verbally respond in the manner of my choosing. That’s me exercising my free speech just s the other guy has. But I accept the consequences of that choice, right or wrong and as a citizen I accept the right of the courts to interpret that choice as legal or otherwise in all of the circumstances. If I punch someone because he called me a phuhkkun Irish cawnnt is the fact that he called me that relevant to my decision to administer him with a right-hander ? Dies it mitigate my personal responsibility any more or less than it would if he called me a phuhkkun blonde cawnnt or a phuhkkun skinny cawnnt ? Why would the cops be wasting my tax dollars arresting the dickhead who called me that on the basis that they think it might influence the probability of me subsequently haymaking in his general direction ?

  • tacapall

    Oneill its like speeding, illegal but not everyone gets charged…

    The comparison breaks down because with driving laws there is a definite objective measurement by which the supposed crime can be measured. That’s my core problem with this law, not really the freedom of speech implications- there always needs to be a limit bwhere the law is able to determine you have moved from objectionable opinion to hate speech.

    Draw up that limit in black and white; if in the Old Firm context that means compiling a list of “illegal” songs or phrases, then so be it.

    You won’t catch everybody, that’s for sure but as with the drink-driving clampdown you will have a much better chance of eventually also changing peoples’ attitudes along with locking up a few of a worst offenders if people know exactly where the acceptable limit had been drawn.

  • Nunoftheabove


    Not sure that entirely works as an anology but I know where you are with it. Surely though at best this is only dealing with symptoms. I would have thought that without any other meaningful structural or cultural changes in Scottish society then at best some aspects of some behavior might change (e.g. on an OF match day, when the cops are watching and in heavy numbers) but attitudes and underlying beliefs will continue to go effectively unchallenged. Do we really want/need cops making judgment calls on whether wearing shamrock once a year in a certain area or pub constitutes reasonable grounds of provocation or incitement ? If an orange band plays a Rangers tune that’s not allowed on the terraces any longer on an approved march/walk will that be deemed legally unproblematic and culturally appropriate ?

  • Into the west

    thanks dissenter,
    I downloaded it instead 😉

  • Nunof theabove,

    What are the causes of sectarianism in Scotland? If it were merely the institutions of the Old Firm, the Orange Order or even the school system segregated along religious lines then the obvious solution to the outsider would be to outlaw all three factors… but that won’t happen. It won’t happen because too large a proportion of Scottish society still buys into the cultural symbolism which underlies those (imo) divisive institutions.

    So, all we’re left with is, at the present moment, to reduce the harmful effects of those symptons until a strong enough critical mass is happy enough to remove those factors.

    How best to deal with those symptons is up for debate, focussed legal action certainly is part of it and that may help to sort out the underlying problems in the long run. This ( recent message from the Rangers supporters is interesting in that regard. Part of it is warning of the possible legal implications for the club in continuing to let the bigots run rampant. Part of it, however, is also saying it is morally wrong to let the bigots run rampant.

    Whichever of the two is the bigger motivating force, at the minute, is inconsequential if the end result means at least one sympton has been addressed.

  • Nunoftheabove


    I don’t disagree however that’s what dishonest about this legislation and therfore unhelpful about it; there’s no substantial recnognition that sectarianism and/or ethnic intolerance is a problem outside of OF rivalry. I would say that I don’t buy completely the argument that the OF is itself a mere symptom of wider issues; in more recent times it has, for me, fairly clearly become a contributor to the problem and if anything is as much cause as it is an effect.

    I share your pessimism that Scotland as a society is anyhing approaching ready to ‘go there’ and really look at itself. To that extent, this legislation is also opportunistic on the part of the SNP as there would be problems afoot for it and its western Scotland supporters’ sense of themselves and of the party they vote for (and why they vote for it) if those matters were too much more deeply explored.

  • Guevaras Ghost

    I believe that all laws in scotland presently cover whats deemed lawful annd unlawful but what is being proposed is a muddying of the waters to facilitate a ” There as bad as each other” mentality. for example sectarian and political chanting are poles apart in many ways….Rangers and Hearts and others sing sectarian songs week in and week out yet nothing is done about it domestically, in regards to arrests etc even though deemed unlawful.

    However some Celtic songs, chants or add ons about the IRA have been proven in the Scottish courts not to be illegal and do not fall under sectarianism law . Now they are introducing new legislation to facillitate this bad as each other myth.

    We are also seeing a concerted effort to de-politicise the celtic support due to there opposition to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israels behaviour in Palestine and of course the British militarys murderous campaign in Ireland. Remember the Green Brigades banner ” no blood stained poppy on our shirts “and the anti-Celtic campaign in its wake.

    Can someone explain to me why Rangers supporters feel the need to wear their poppy to Celtic Park 2weeks before poppy week if not to cause offence, or why RFC feel the need to put Union Jacks on every home seat when they played Celtic after the so called night of shame. Even better why did the media not pick up and report these incidents in the same way they they tackled the Celtic Banner issue.

    this isnt paranonia this is a fact…these so called laws are being introduced to target celtic supporters and for no other reason.

  • tomthumbuk

    Guevaras Ghost.

    If you don’t think the IRA are sectarian, just Google

    “Kingsmills massacre”

    then google,

    “Bik McFarlane, Bayardo Bar bombing”.

    Too many more to list.