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Hate crime law already ‘weaponised’ to silence women, expert warns

Professor Sarah Pedersen, from Aberdeen's Robert Gordon University, said the legislation will have a "chilling" effect on public debate.

Scotland’s new hate crime law has already been “weaponised” to bully women into silence, a leading expert has warned.

Professor Sarah Pedersen, from Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, said the legislation will have a “chilling” effect on public debate and has been met with a tone of sheer disbelief in other countries.

Pedersen, whose research focuses on women’s engagement with the media for political purposes, claims activists saved up lists of people they disagree so they could make vexatious complaints.

Thousands of complaints

Around 3,600 reports were made in the first 48 hours of the law coming into force on Monday. It is expected that figure could now have almost doubled.

The legislation has come in for fierce criticism from a number of high profile individuals, including Harry Potter author JK Rowling.

Her objection is focused on the inclusion of transgender identity as a protected characteristic given that being a woman, as defined by biological sex, is not.

JK Rowling. Photo by Alan Davidson/Shutterstock

In posts on social media, Rowling misgendered a number of trans people and then effectively challenged police to arrest her under the law.

Pedersen believes the new powers have been seized on by activists keen to dampen down any criticism of the Scottish Government’s stance on gender recognition.

She said: “The tone of discussion and debate on social media in the days before the law came into force; you had activists saying they had a list, they’re going to be dobbing these women in and filling in forms first thing on April 1.

“There were at least some activists saying they were going to weaponise the act against gender critical women.”

Concern over non-crime hate incidents

While stirring up racial hatred was already a crime, the new law also extends protection to other people on the grounds of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation.

But concerns have been raised over the ability of police to log non-crime hate incidents when the subject of a complaint does not meet a criminal threshold.

Last month Tory MSP Murdo Fraser threatened legal action against Police Scotland after the force logged a social media comment he made as a “hate incident”.

Tory MSP Murdo Fraser. Image: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament.

Pedersen said women have already discussed with her how they are taking precautions to avoid similar measures being taken against them.

She said: “There are a tremendous amount of women who have told me how fearful they are.

“They have told me about the steps they’ve taken to protect themselves, either by being very careful about what they speak about or writing down phone numbers so that when police seize their phones or computers they will at least still be able to communicate.

“It’s the process as much as the punishment.

“There’s a real fear of what will happen when one of these accusations is made, electronic devices being seized for months.”

Pedersen, who has been speaking to a number of international media outlets about the new law, said it has been met with “total shock” around the world.

Old Firm ‘deluge’ warning

It is feared police could be “deluged” by a wave of hate crime complaints in relation to Sunday’s Old Firm game.

It comes after Ally McCoist, a former Rangers player and manager, guaranteed thousands of fans will breach the Hate Crime Act this weekend.

McCoist planned to attend the game in person but has subsequently said he will stay away because of family commitments.

Asked about McCoist’s concerns, Scotland’s community safety minister Siobhian Brown said: “I’m not going to comment on individuals’ comments.”

Former player Ally McCoist working as a TV pundit. Image: PA

But she stressed behaviour would have to exceed a “very high threshold” for a crime to be committed.

Police Scotland said: “An appropriate policing plan is in place to maintain public safety and minimise any disruption to the community ahead of the fixture at Ibrox on Sunday.”

“Our response will balance the protection of human rights with upholding the law.”

Meanwhile, a Scottish legal firm has struck a deal to represent those accused of breaching the legislation.

The Free Speech Union, a UK-wide organisation, has signed a deal with Levy & McRae to fund legal cases.

A new hotline is also being launched for anyone who has been arrested or contacted by the police in relation to the Act.

What does the government say?

The Scottish Government said its Hate Crime Act will help to tackle the harm caused by hatred and prejudice, and provide greater protections for victims and communities.

It said: “The legislation does not prevent people expressing controversial, challenging or offensive views, nor does it seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, and the right to freedom of expression is specifically built into the Act.

“The Act has a high threshold for criminality. For the new offences in the legislation, it has to be proven that the behaviour is threatening or abusive and that it is intended to stir up hatred.

“We know the impact on those on the receiving end of such behaviour, whether it’s physical, verbal or online attacks, can be traumatic and life-changing and we want to protect those affected.”