Opinion - Free Speech and Mark Meechan

While I would not wish to comment on what is still, as sentencing has yet to be decided, an ongoing court case, I am a strong supporter of free speech. Freedom of speech is the basis of our democracy, our civil society, and our culture, and the authorities must protect and defend it.

It is understandable that this case has gained the attention of many due to the questions it has raised surrounding free speech and the law from across the political spectrum. I lean in favour of liberty of expression. There is not, and should not be, a right in law not to be offended by something someone else says or does.

While some, such as comedians Ricky Gervais and David Baddiel defending Meechan’s actions others such as members of Scotland’s Jewish community have welcomed it as striking a blow against anti-Semitism.

There are many examples of material being broadcast that may offend others, including Monty Python. No one is seriously calling for their material to be banned, even though they might personally find it in poor taste. You can’t challenge views you disagree with by banning them. It forces those who hold those views underground the sentiments fester out of sight.

However, there have to be limits to free speech. Someone inciting criminal behaviour cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. For example, if someone waved a placard calling for the death of Catholics or Muslims or Jews, then that goes beyond the limits of what is acceptable. Some laws are necessary to stop genuine cases of incitement to racial hatred and violence.

Justice and policing are devolved issues here in Scotland, and so the Scottish Parliament is responsible both for the laws relating to ‘hate speech’ and for overseeing how Police Scotland enforces any such laws.

I understand that the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent review by Lord Bracadale into hate crime legislation, which is due to conclude in the coming months. I hope that, when considering how to act on the review’s findings, the Scottish Government keeps the importance of free speech in mind.

My Scottish Conservative colleagues in Holyrood share my belief in freedom of speech, and I am proud that they have now succeeded in their long struggle to repeal the SNP’s Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, which was an unnecessary, unwanted, and ineffective law that I and my fellow Scottish Conservatives have consistently opposed as an assault on free speech.

It’s a test of those who believe in free speech when they defend those who they disagree with, or whose actions they find offensive. It might be uncomfortable and unpopular but it is an essential.