Sunday 30 October, 12.30pm until 1.30pm, Lecture Theatre 2 Lunchtime Debates
What’s the bigger problem in Scotland right now? Is it Celtic and Rangers fans verbally abusing each other at football grounds, or the proposed ‘anti-sectarian’ law currently being debated in the Scottish Parliament? The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill is the SNP government’s response to what some see as increased sectarian tensions in Scotland, particularly surrounding the football rivalry between Glasgow’s famous Old Firm (Celtic FC has Irish Catholic origins, while Rangers fans are traditionally Protestant). Critics argue the bill is a grossly disproportionate response to some minor on-field altercations last season, and a handful of anonymous personal threats, more serious but already amply covered by existing laws. The bill introduces two new offences, namely ‘sectarian and other offensive chanting likely to cause public disorder’ and ‘threatening communications’, specifically online. Should we welcome these tough new laws, which carry a maximum of five year jail sentences for those guilty of sectarian chanting?
Supporters of the law point out racist comments are now unacceptable and illegal at football grounds and ask why sectarian ‘hate crimes’ shouldn’t be similarly punished ? Opponents argue that no matter how objectionable their songs may be, Old Firm fans have the right to free speech. Furthermore, they point out that sectarianism does not seem to be a serious social problem beyond the world of football. Is this in fact a snobbish moral panic exercising the Scottish political and media classes? Or is there really a connection between thousands of Rangers fans singing ‘anti-Catholic’ songs like ‘The Sash’ and a criminal individual sending a parcel bomb to Celtic manager Neil Lennon?
Significantly, Roseanna Cunningham, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, who is responsible for introducing the new law, has refused to define precisely what would be unlawful. Will Celtic fans who sing IRA songs be committing an offence? Or Rangers fans chanting ‘F—- the Pope’, or even singing ‘God Save the Queen’? The minister has indicated that in certain contexts a Celtic fan could be jailed for ‘aggressively crossing himself’ in front of Rangers fans. Does this not implicitly concede the moral right of a bigot to take offence at another’s religion? Fans on both sides have already been known to trawl YouTube for offensive chants to complain about. Might it be the case that whatever its intention, rather than confront sectarianism, this new law will actually legitimise intolerance? Is it time to rediscover a thick skin when attending a football match, and defend football fans’ right to be offensive? Or is a new law needed to stamp out sectarianism once and for all?
Listen to session audio:
editor, Rangers fanzine Follow, Follow; co-founder, Rangers Supporters Trust
|Dr John Kelly|
lecturer in socio-cultural aspects of sport, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh; author, Sectarianism and Scottish Football: Critical Reflections on Dominant Discourse and Media Commentary
|Dr Stuart Waiton|
lecturer in sociology and criminology, Abertay University; author, Snobs' Law: criminalising football fans in an age of intolerance
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
Freedom of speech is not within the gift of the First Minster to stay or allow. Its antecedents go back to the Bill of Rights (1689), of which Rangers fans have been known to chant – in a non-sectarian way, of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), of which there has been slightly less celebration on the terracings, and, of course, currently under the European Convention of Human Rights.Michael Kelly, Scotsman, 13 October 2011
The Scottish government has recently introduced the 'Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill' which aims to criminalise sectarian chanting at football matches. This is a disproportionate and dangerous attack on freedom of speech and will actually increase tensions amongst football fans.Kirk Leech, Huffington Post, 8 October 2011
No-one would describe Old Firm games as being like a polite tea party and sensitive souls should really choose another sport if they want to stand quietly in polite company.Kevin Rooney, Independent, 6 October 2011
The Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill is being drafted in the names of tolerance and diversity. But, as Stuart Waiton points out, it is itself an exercise in snobbish intolerance that will have a corrosive effect on society.Stuart Waiton, Free Society, 23 June 2011
Following Sunday's Old Firm game at Ibrox I find myself with a highly unusual dilemma on my hands, which is this: should a journalist report a supporter for indulging in bigoted or racist chanting?Graham Spiers, Times Online, 6 October 2009