IT has certainly been quite the stirring start for the Hate Crime Act here in Scotland. Many voices are outraged at being held to account for what they say.

We are, of course, always free to say what we want – but are we ever free from the consequences, good or bad? I don’t think so, and this act will ensure that the consequences are clearer, particularly for those who intentionally try to stir up hatred against a group.

I have heard so many takes on this over the last week, and one of the worst was a presenter saying “haven’t they heard of sticks and stones?” in a patronising attempt to tell people to grow a thick skin. Words are painful and they do in fact cause harm when used in a weaponising way.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 is an incredible example of our commitment to justice, equality, and the safeguarding of all individuals from hate and prejudice.

At its core, this legislation is more than just paragraphs of legal text, it’s a story of our collective journey towards creating a society that champions dignity, respect, and understanding for everyone.

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Amid the furore, I ruminated quite a bit on this act and my mind was drawn to the stories of those in the transgender community, which has, unfortunately, become a focal point in the debate around hate crime legislation.

I remembered the many accounts of transgender people I have spoken with over the last three years in my professional and personal life. For example, one young transgender individual from my constituency who shared their experience of discrimination and fear which encroached on their everyday life due to the constant bombardment of online debates over their life, as though they weren’t real – they were dehumanised.

This story isn’t isolated, it echoes the struggles of many across Scotland, making it starkly clear why such protective legislation isn’t just necessary but imperative.

The act, often clouded by misconceptions, isn’t about muzzling free speech or policing thoughts. It’s designed to draw a line firmly in the sand against behaviours that threaten, abuse, and intentionally stir up hatred.

It’s about creating a space where robust debates and disagreements can exist, but within a framework of mutual respect and safety for all. Freedom of speech is indeed a cherished principle, vital to the being of our democracy – but it’s not absolute. It comes with the responsibility to not harm others intentionally. The act puts a spotlight on this responsibility, making a clear distinction between what constitutes harmful conduct and what falls under free speech.

It’s about ensuring that our freedoms don’t infringe on others’ rights to live free from hate and fear.

The deliberate provocations seen in recent times, where individuals have tested the boundaries of this legislation, do more than just waste police time, they strike at the very core of our societal values.

These actions aren’t just about challenging a legal framework, they question our collective resolve to build a community where hatred finds no home.

Through this act, Scotland articulates its vision of a society where every person, irrespective of their race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or disability, can live authentically and safely. The legislation is born from real stories and genuine suffering, and sculpted to heal and protect, not to hinder or oppress.

The narrative that positions the Hate Crime Act as a blockade to freedom is a flawed reading of what freedom signifies in a society that values justice and equality.

True freedom blossoms in a society where everyone’s right to live without hate and discrimination is fiercely protected. This act doesn’t confine our freedom, it refines it, channelling it through empathy and respect.

Our engagement with this act has progressed essential discussions on hate, tolerance, and the role of our legal system in addressing societal challenges.

It compels us to ponder the society we aspire to be, one that either passively allows the seeds of hatred to flourish or actively cultivates an environment of mutual respect and understanding.

I challenge the critics of this legislation to view it through the lens of those it seeks to protect.

Critics often worry about freedom of speech implications. However, the act has built-in provisions to ensure that free speech is protected.

It’s crafted to ensure that while we protect people from hate speech, we don’t stifle legitimate discussion, criticism, or controversial views.

It’s not about policing every word or thought but about drawing the line at speech intended to provoke hatred.

So, to clarify what the act doesn’t do: it’s not a tool for blanket censorship. You won’t get into trouble for just saying something offensive or unpopular.

The legislation doesn’t target thoughts or beliefs. It’s the act of expressing hatred, particularly in a threatening way, that it aims to curb.

Reporting something as hate speech under this act doesn’t automatically lead to someone being convicted. There’s a robust legal process to determine whether the behaviour truly meets the criteria for stirring up hatred.

To those feeling sceptical about the Hate Crime Act, it’s worth understanding that the goal here is to protect people from the tangible harm that hate crimes can inflict.

It’s about ensuring safety and respect in our society, not about limiting constructive dialogue or legitimate expressions of belief.

The act sets a high threshold for what constitutes a prosecutable offence, focusing on genuinely harmful behaviour, not just any controversial or offensive statement.

This act isn’t an academic exercise in legislating morality, it’s a concrete step towards nullifying the hatred that still taints our society.

It’s about affirming the inherent worth of every person and upholding the dignity that everyone deserves, it’s a call to all of us in Scotland to rise to the defence of our shared humanity.

It doesn’t limit our speech but protects our collective right to a life free from hate-driven violence and abuse. Which is certainly a Scotland I champion.