Silencing sectarianism: football's free speech wars

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:


Mark Dingwall
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

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Produced by
Kevin Rooney politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
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