Mounted police ready to deter protesters

What’s Happened to Free Speech in Scotland?

Kaitlin Dryburgh- 23rd September 2022

The recent monarchy processions have brought up many emotions and questions, not only for Scotland but for the UK as a whole. For some people these last ten days have stirred a debate about the role of the monarchy, what they want for their country and subsequently took this opportunity to protest. No violence in sight these were all peaceful, and for the majority they weren’t obscuring people or stopping others paying their respects.

However, what has ensued these past ten days has been a blatant disregard for members of the public to express their own views, to disagree with the current establishment and a refusal to let many to exercise what should be their right to protest and free speech. There have been several examples of members of the public being arrested or moved on from their location for doing something as simple as holding up a piece of paper with “not my king” written on it. In another case a man in Oxfordshire was arrested for shouting “who elected him?”. Even before he shouted this he was discouraged from talking with another member of the public about his opposing views. This doesn’t strike me as a “free” country and in fact has more in common with the likes of North Korea. The only difference being that this man was eventually “de-arrested” and after some questioning as to what grounds he had been arrested on in the first place the Metropolitan police issued a statement that individuals still have the right to protest and express their views.

Although there were 67 people arrested at the Queen’s funeral, of which we are still unaware on what grounds these were, perhaps the most worrying accounts of abhorrent acts of anti-free speech have taken place in Scotland. In the processions that took place between Sunday 11th and Monday 12th in Edinburgh a confirmed four people were arrested. Once again a woman holding a sign asking for abolishment of the monarchy was arrested and intimidated, in another fine example, a man heckling Prince Andrew was pummelled to the ground by a few members of the public and was swiftly dragged away by police and arrested (notably the persons who quite clearly assaulted him were not). Perhaps many may argue its disrespectful, not in good taste and quite frankly not the right time for it and maybe they’re even right, however under no circumstances can the principle of free speech and the right to protest ever take a back seat and be sacrificed.

Even monarchist MP David Davis expressed concern over the recent arrests and urged the police to uphold Scotland’s track record on allowing people the right to convey their opinions. It’s not crazy to see a politician inserting their opinion into a justice matter, however this a poignant example as a conservative MP who has consistently voted for strong law and order policies taking issue with this is rare.

These are chilling stories that sees Scottish people being treated as if the 16th century uniforms and traditions in the royal processions have infiltrated into our law and order which sees police enforcing such broad views on free speech in a heavy handed and sweeping manner.

Currently the discussions surrounding free speech are in a perhaps conflicting and confusing space, there are many contradicting factors to consider. What we’ve seen take place recently would lead anyone to think that you’ve got to keep your mouth shut about anything that could even be remotely offensive. Yet this week an inquest begins for the death of Molly Russell, which saw the fourteen-year-old take her own life partly because of the self-harm and suicidal content on social media platforms. So it seems that some people are allowed to post an abundance of harmful content online, so harmful it has contributed to someone taking their own life, and the social media companies have not as of yet been forced to do anything about it. Yet someone is unable to write on a piece of paper their disapproval of having an un-elected head of state forced upon them. Of course the re-occurring theme in these two stories is that the “little” people, you and me, the ordinary working people are the ones that are constricted.

The recent cancel culture constantly brewing underneath all conversations and social interactions has made many question what can and can’t be said publicly. Although we mostly see celebrities in the news being “cancelled” for something they’ve said, maybe even decades ago, it has without a doubt effected everyday people. It’s not unusual to hear of someone getting fired due to something they said on social media, or families not speaking to each other due to political differences, or friends totally ignoring current affairs as to not get into a fight. It seems that although we pride ourselves in having a country that promotes free speech we seem increasingly unable to accept it.

If we have a right to free speech and to express our distain of something, do we also have a right to be heard, and have other opinions expressed to? Should there always be an even argument presented, having a national broadcasting company like the BBC is supposed to show us point of views that are impartial and unbiased. Although in some cases it’s been found that this wasn’t the case, especially in conversations such as Scottish independence. When it comes to the coronation next year, which in comparison to the queen’s funeral is a far more political event involving a new head of state, will there be a balanced view of the event presented and will others be allowed to express and publicise their opinions?

Does everything need a balanced opinion and does everyone deserve to have a voice? I’m sure we all know someone in the media that we wish didn’t. In situations when highly controversial topics are being discussed such as racism, transgender issues or sexism there are opinions that many believe shouldn’t be heard at all – this is where it becomes tricky, what is free speech and what’s hate speech. Do we need to be more willing to listen to others, even if the others are causing offence, I would argue yes, as banning the speech doesn’t ban the thoughts. If we can’t speak with others we wholly disagree with we’ll never understand where they are coming from, or perhaps have the opportunity to sway their opinion and we will be left with bubbles in our society where you only speak to those you completely agree with, people remaining unchallenged and hate starting to fester.

Scotland’s fairly recent Hate Crime law which has been described as “the most illiberal and censorious bill in any liberal democracy in the world” doesn’t do much to help this situation. As some barristers point out, this law puts some Shakespeare works at risk of being in breach of this law. Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this law is that it isn’t based solely on what you’ve done, said or believe but also takes into how you have been perceived and your intent, all rather subjective and not concrete in your ability to follow. JK Rowling’s culturally divisive comments surrounding gender and transgender issues would fall under the terms of this bill, as enough people found it hateful. The aim of this law was to stamp out hate and bigotry, and although falsehoods may have to work harder to spread,  those perhaps hateful opinions will still be there. However, stopping free speech and cancelling out the grey areas where if done correctly the most productive discussions can take place leaves us with a country that will be unable to evolve.

As previous cabinet secretary for justice Humza Yousaf said, “free speech in itself is never an unfettered right” and of course he is right, in a democratic country we will never be truly free because we can’t have people being harassed or inciting violence. Yet it seems that we may have gone too far, and after the recent royal arrests can people stand up to the establishment and have their opinions granted and listened to?

1 thought on “What’s Happened to Free Speech in Scotland?”

  1. Free speech requires us to accept that other people will argue points or promote opinions that we object to so much than we actually find those beliefs offensive. Therefore, we if we do not support the right of those who believe that abortion involves the ending of human life to pray peacefully outside those places where those abortions are performed, we should not pretend that we support free speech. Yes, people may be offended by their message – especially woman about to have those procedures – but the price of supporting free speech is that all of us may experience opinions we find upsetting or offensive.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top