Mr Bean Defends Free Speech: Rowan Atkinson Denounces Scottish Hate Crime Bill

Rowan
Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

Famed British comedian and star of Blackadder and Mr Bean Rowan Atkinson has signed an open letter decrying Scotland’s new Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, warning the law will infringe upon freedom of speech.

An open letter from Humanist Society Scotland — signed by artists, authors, journalists, and free speech campaigners, including Rowan Atkinson — warned that the left-separatist Scottish National Party (SNP) bill could stifle free expression.

The letter warned that the legislation as written “creates stirring up offences without any intent being examined; merely that the words, action, or artwork might do so. This offence could even be applied to being in possession of materials produced by someone else, where sharing the material could stir up hatred.”

“The unintended consequences of this well-meaning bill risk stifling freedom of expression, and the ability to articulate or criticise religious and other beliefs,” the open letter warned.

The letter was signed by a cross-party “diverse group of individuals and organisations”, who warned that the hate crime legislation could “frustrate rational debate and discussion”, which has a “fundamental role in society including in artistic endeavour.”

“The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious and other [sic] must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish,” the letter concluded.

Though notionally on the left of the political spectrum, Mr Atkinson has long been a proponent of freedom of speech, and even defended Boris Johnson for making a joke suggesting burka-wearing Muslim women resemble “letterboxes”.

“As a lifelong beneficiary of the freedom to make jokes about religion, I do think that Boris Johnson’s joke about wearers of the burka resembling letterboxes is a pretty good one,” Atkinson wrote in 2018.

“All jokes about religion cause offence, so it’s pointless apologising for them. You should really only apologise for a bad joke. On that basis, no apology is required,” the Blackadder star concluded.

The comedian also campaigned against proposed laws under the Labour government of Tony Blair which sought to ban incitement to religious hatred. Atkinson warned that the laws would have threatened freedom of speech and that his opposition was about much more than just defending “some silly vicar jokes”.

Scotland’s justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, denied accusations that the bill would curtail free speech, saying last month that “Free speech in itself is never an unfettered right.”

“We don’t accept that people can go on speaking tours, saying that women should be raped and children should be kidnapped – we just don’t accept that freedom of speech is completely unfettered,” Yousaf said.

“What this does is create a protection for, particularly, minority groups and vulnerable groups in our society, against being targeted for hatred and being targets for hatred,” he claimed.

A Scottish government spokesperson claimed: “The Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, people can express controversial, challenging or offensive views as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended or likely to stir up hatred.”

“The law should protect vulnerable groups and minorities and this Bill – which follows an independent, judge-led review and is backed by a number of organisations – will increase confidence in policing to those communities affected by hate crime,” the spokesman claimed.

However, lawyers in Scotland have warned that the bill may have “unintended consequences” and there could be a “large number of prosecutions”.

The Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, Roddy Dunlop QC, warned that the loose language of the bill could even criminalise comedians who make “A Scotsman, Irishman, and Englishman go to a pub” jokes.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill will be voted on by Scottish MSPs later this year.

Follow Kurt on Twitter at @KurtZindulka

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