On Wednesday 10th and Thursday 11th March 2021, Holyrood finally voted on the Anti-Free Speech Bill which Humza Yousaf – the (In)Justice Secretary – introduced last year, and which he euphemistically termed a 'Hate Crime' Bill.
We have opposed the Bill in its entirety and we made a submission to the Committee last year, which was published on the Parliament's website and which can be read at "Free Speech For Scots: We Show what's Wrong with the Proposed 'Hate Crime' Bill".
We list the MSPs who voted for and against the SNP's anti-free speech bill in our Free Speech Hall of Shame, and Fame here.
On Wednesday 10th March, myself and a member of the AFFG Team went along to Holyrood in order to give the MSPs who support it a piece of our mind.
Of course, these are unusual circumstances, and so we researched the law to find out what we were "allowed" to do.
What is the Law?
We were aware that under Sec. 5 "Restrictions on movement" of the "The Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Regulations 2020" that "no person may leave the place where they are living" except for the reasons given under Sec. 8 (5) (f) which includes travel "for the purposes of work".
As political journalists, reporting on a very important day in Holyrood, we were both covered under Sub-para (f).
We also knew that under Sec. 6 "Restrictions on gatherings", it is the law that "no person may participate in a gathering in a public place of more than two people".
Therefore, we kept our numbers only to the two of us.
What was not clear, however, was whether travel and gathering – of even just 2 people – for the purposes of "peaceful political protest" was allowed?
Under Scots Common Law, it is the case that something should be presumed to be permitted, unless it is explicitly written down as forbidden.
However, the people responsible for these Regulations have been quite clever (tricky?) because they have not listed banned activities. Rather they have only listed that which they permit.
The implication is that if it is not written down as something to be permitted, then it is not to be allowed.
And guess what? Peaceful protest for political purposes is not one of the explicitly permitted actions. In this way, the framers of the Regulations can say that they have not actually "banned" political protest!
Rather they can point out that it is not explicitly allowed.
However, it is not explicitly forbidden either! So it was well within our rights to test this Regulation.
We took along our AFFG Megaphone and our intention was to stand outside and give the walls of Holyrood a cogent blast of our opinion – while the MSPs inside were busy voting away our rights.
Shortly After we Arrived...
Very shortly after we had put up our "Humza says you've had a bit too much to think" poster, we were quickly spotted by two Police Officers.
They came over. We explained we were journalists working for A Force For Good, that we were opposed to what was going on inside the building, and what we were doing. That is, we were putting up a poster; addressing an audience via live-streaming online; and finally we were going to use the Megaphone.
The Police said they would allow us to continue to report directly via our live streaming, but they insisted we remove the poster and they were clear they did not want us to use the Megaphone.
We explained the above Regulations to them – that political protest is not explicitly forbidden in the legislation – but they were clear that we were not to use the Megaphone as this would not be, they pointed out, "for the purposes of work".
Clearly, we do not want to get into any trouble with the Police, and so we complied with the request to remove the Poster – thankfully we had already taken our pic – and we agreed not to use the Megaphone.
It is at this point that our live-stream below, begins.
What Does This Mean for Political Protest in Scotland?
It seems to mean that even just a gathering of two people is not allowed by Police Scotland to develop into a peaceful political protest.
That is a problem, because it is a highly questionable interpretation of the 'black-letter law'. And furthermore, it speaks to a lack of constitutional and democratic awareness among Police Scotland.
In that regard, we watched a video taken outside Holyrood, around a week before our event, where one of the police officers told someone that protest was "a qualified right". The police officer was suggesting that the right to protest is something that can be taken away for whatever reason (in this case, on "health grounds").
However, peaceful political protest is not "a qualified right".
In a democracy, peaceful political protest is (was?) an absolute right.
In a democracy, the right to peaceful political protest, and demonstration, represents an on-going counter-balance to the right of our democratically-elected lawmakers to make the law.
The correct approach – and the culture which should be encouraged in Police Scotland going forward – should be that when two people turn up to peacefully politically protest (which we contend is legal under the above-cited Regulations, or if a group of people turn up when these Regulations are lifted) then the Police should step back and go, "OK, go ahead, just behave yourselves!" That should be the end of it!
It is simply not good enough to elect people to Parliament if they subsequently set about depriving us of our rights to peacefully protest them!
How many of the MSPs inside the Chamber, voting away our right to free speech, gave any consideration to the irony of them doing so, while peaceful political protest to their law-making was being forbidden outside the Chamber?
In all of this, we should emphasise that it is important for political protest to be peaceful and respectful.
Protestors who insist on yelling in the faces of police officers, swearing at them, and chanting profanities are achieving nothing, while at the same time demonstrating to the world their bad upbringing, or mental issues, or both. They should not be surprised if some officers take unkindly to that sort of foolishness!
What Can We Do About this Law?
It reflects badly upon Scotland that this Anti-Free Speech law has been passed. But what can we do about it now?
Regardless of what political party we support, and regardless of whether we are unionists or nationalists, we can ensure that the politicians who voted for this law, and who continue to deny us our freedom of speech, and who are also depriving us of our right to peaceful political protest, and demonstration, are punished at the ballot box.
We have listed the MSPs in the Anti-Free Speech Hall of Shame, and those in the Free-Speech Hall of Fame here.
In that regard, the (In)justice Secretary, who is responsible for this, Humza Yousaf, is himself vulnerable to losing his Glasgow Pollok seat – although only against a strong challenger who is able to distinguish themselves as different from him.
Yousaf was elected in 2016 in Glasgow Pollok for 3 reasons: Nobody knew who he was, the SNP were riding a wave, and the turnout in that constituency was atrocious (45.8%).
If the turnout can be raised, and enough people can be motivated to get him out, then he may need to start looking for a proper job!
Register to Vote!
The election is on Thursday 6th May. You must be registered to vote by midnight on Monday 19 April. If you are not already registered you can register to vote here.
The deadline to apply for a postal vote is 5pm on Tuesday 6 April. You can download an application from the above link.
If you have family and friends who are not registered, please encourage them to get registered – and help them if necessary. Remember that 16 year olds are able to vote at this election.
Some people might say to us: "Why didn't you organise a big group of us, because you would have got a lot of people and the Police wouldn't have stopped you?"
That might be true, but what would also have happened is that, as the organisers, the people from AFFG would have been arrested and charged. We know this for a fact because people who attended very sparsely attended anti-lockdown demos outside Holyrood last year have been arrested and charged, and they were not even the organisers and they were behaving themselves impeccably!
Alistair McConnachie has a degree in Scots Law.
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