Where Does Free Speech End and Hate Speech Start?

Julie Ferguson, EIS rep and member of the STUC Disabled Workers’ Committee, writes for the STUC blog:

In June this year, it was announced that in Scotland hate crime against disabled people increased from 188 in 2016-17 to 284 in 2017-18.  This is a worrying trend, especially in the current political climate of austerity, leaving the EU and its Human Rights Convention, and general labelling of disabled people as “benefit scroungers”.

Disabled people are regularly insulted, and challenged aggressively, simply for being different:

“You don’t need that wheelchair, you can walk.”

“Why should you get money from the government?  Earn it like everybody else!”

“You’re a retard.”

“Get out of my way, blind bitch.”

“Disabled people should be sterilised.”

“Cripples shouldn’t be allowed out.”

“I hope you choke on your plastic straw and die.”

So.  Where does free speech end and hate speech start?

On Twitter, this is a common view:

Julie_blog quote 1

[Tweet reads: “Even though some opinions are REALLY out there, they’re still not YOUR opinion.  People need to accept that free speech includes all; not just the one that line up with theirs”]

Well, let’s check that.

Amnesty International UK states thatFreedom of speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.”.  As Amnesty International UK points out, we have the right to look up, listen to, write, and say anything we want.  Within reason.  The UK and Scottish Governments both have an obligation to prevent free speech from becoming hate speech, i.e. a hate crime.

Police Scotland defines a hate crime as one “motivated by malice or ill will towards a social group by: race; sexual orientation; religion/faith; disability; transgender/gender identity” This definition includes the use of intimidating or threatening behaviour (including obscene calls and gestures), verbal abuse or insults (including name calling), and online bullying and abuse.

The boundary between free speech and hate speech/crime lies somewhere between those two definitions.  I can’t give you legal advice about whether something you or someone else has said is definitely free speech or hate speech.

I am asking you to think about it more, to consider what you’re saying, or what someone else is saying, with this in mind.

Here’s some examples of ‘free’ speech:

Collin Brewer, a councillor in Cornwall, said disabled children should be put down because they cost the council too much money.  Afterwards, he said that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong (4).

On Twitter, a photo of a nine year old girl with disabilities was used in a pro-eugenics campaign.  The message read, “It is okay to think that every child matters however a lot of them do not”.

While campaigning to become President of the United States, Donald Trump mocked a journalist for being disabled, and he was filmed jerking his arm spastically.

On Reddit, there are several threads (you may not want to click the following links) discussing whether disabled people, particularly mentally-disabled people, should be euthanised (killed).  A lot of people think we should be killed.

Another Twitter example:

julie blog image 2

[Tweet reads: in case youre wondering YES I am prejudiced against the mentally disabled and mentally ill, id kill them myself if I could, w an uzi w “GOOD INTENTIONS” engraved into it !”]

Why am I worried?  There are people out there who advocate the right to say anything they want without consequences.  Perhaps these people won’t take it further into physical violence, but they’re opening up the potential for others to do so, thinking that they will have support for their actions.

Two years ago, 19 people were killed in a care home in Japan, because they were disabled. 25 more were wounded. If we let hate speech against disabled people become normal, not only do we have to deal with the mental damage of that behaviour, we’re also normalising violence against disabled people.

Don’t believe me?  Boris Johnson recently made derogatory comments about burkas and niqabs, and violence against Muslims often increases after politicians hold forth like this.  Watch the news, pay attention to the people around you.

The bottom line is, nobody gets to abuse another person for being disabled, or for any other protected characteristic.  If you think you’ve experienced a hate crime, report it to the police.  Police Scotland must log and investigate any incident as a hate crime if the crime is seen by the victim as caused by prejudice.  If it’s a hate crime, they’ll take it further.  If it’s a hate incident, they’ll use the information to identify trends and target resources more effectively.  Either way, reporting it helps you and other people.  If you think you’ve witnessed a hate crime, report it to the police.  You do not have to be the victim of the crime to report it.

If you’d like to read more about hate crime legislation as it currently is in Scotland, with recommendations for improvements, please have a look at Lord Bracadale’s “Independent Review of Hate Legislation Crime in Scotland”, which was published in May this year.  The report can be downloaded as a PDF.

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Popular Policies for a Just Transition

Tackling climate change is a global imperative, and Scottish Labour today has added its proposals to the clear set of targets that are being demanded of the Scottish Government.

Ambitious targets for decarbonisation of our economy are essential in the context of global climate change agreements to limit temperature increases to 1.5oC.[1] These targets must not be made at the expense of the workforce and communities which currently extract or depend on the use of fossil fuels. These are the principles of a ‘Just Transition’.

The Just Transition Partnership was formed by Friends of the Earth Scotland and the STUC in 2016. Its members include Unite Scotland, UNISON Scotland, UCU Scotland, CWU Scotland, PCS Scotland and WWF Scotland.

Substantial changes are needed to decarbonise our economy and support good quality employment. This will require large-scale investment in transformation of the production and consumption of energy, as well as reductions in overall energy use.

Done in the right ways, the transition to a low carbon economy can create good new jobs, yield significant economic and social benefits, as well as avert the potentially catastrophic environmental consequences of climate change.

That is the purpose of Just Transition, endorsed through inclusion in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement which takes into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities”.[2]

A Just Transition means moving to a modern low-carbon economy in a way which protects workers’ livelihoods, creates a new industrial base and delivers a fairer Scotland. This concept is central to a successful response to climate change, the implementation of existing Scottish greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction targets, and those proposed under the new Climate Change Bill. Bold targets need strong delivery plans, public enthusiasm and engagement in achieving them.

Any just transition needs to ensure popular support by taking the needs of workers and communities into account and bringing wider socio-economic benefits for citizens of Scotland.

The Scottish Government has accepted the case made by the Just Transition Partnership[3] and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland to set up a Just Transition Commission. Labour’s announcement today builds the pressure on the Scottish Government to make it robust.

A statutory Just Transition Commission, involving workers with real frontline experience in the development of a proper industrial strategy, offers the opportunity reduce emissions while creating new, good quality jobs and benefitting communities across Scotland.

[1] UNFCCC Paris Agreement 2015 Article 2 https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf

[2] Paris Agreement, Preamble

[3] https://foe.scot/resource/proposals-for-just-transition-commission/