Last week, the SNP Government held up a shiny new bill to pardon women who were wrongly convicted as ‘witches’ 300 years ago. For thousands of women in Scotland, being smeared as a ‘witch’ was a difficult label to shake, with show trials leading to the execution of almost 4,000 victims.
It’s great that Nicola Sturgeon wants to pardon women who were wrongfully smeared and targeted – quite possibly because they had said something that offended their neighbours.
Yet, the current ruling class in Scotland seems more than happy to smear and target women whom they find disagreeable today.
This week I dared to criticise on national television a Government policy idea to censor public streets in Scotland. It all started when Nicola Sturgeon chaired a ‘summit’ on Monday to discuss ‘buffer zones’ – an initiative that would censor speech within 150m zones around abortion facilities, supposedly to protect vulnerable women from noisy protestors. She had already declared her full support. While many pro-buffer zone campaign groups were in attendance at the ‘summit’, the invitations for any stakeholders with opposing views got lost in the post. The meeting was private, but it was followed by some gleeful tweets from attendees afterwards. No alternative views allowed. Scottish democracy in action.
Later in the day, the BBC wanted to discuss the topic and, as is rightfully required by the broadcaster, sought different views to ensure a balanced discussion. Gillian Mackay MSP, who had proposed a private members bill for the buffer zone policy, spoke in support. As a pro-life, pro-free speech spokeswoman from Scotland – I work for a Christian campaign group called ADF U.K. – I was invited to give the other perspective.
For what it’s worth, I said that we can all agree that harassment outside abortion facilities should not be tolerated – it’s already against the law. A Home Office review into the situation outside abortion facilities in 2017 found that such examples of harassment were rare – the groups standing outside are usually volunteers engaged in prayer or offering leaflets. If and where instances of harassment occur, I fully support the prosecution of those engaging in it. What makes me very uncomfortable is that the new ‘buffer zones’ idea would go much further. Buffer zones would impose a blanket ban on all offers of help for women who may yet change their minds about having an abortion – and, following the model from certain parts of England, even ban the thoughtcrime of silent prayer.
The vast majority of those volunteering outside facilities are doing so in order to politely and respectfully draw attention to offers of financial and practical help that women in their situation may not know about. This is assistance that many women have benefitted from, and it isn’t right to decide on women’s behalf that they don’t want to hear about it, or to tar all volunteers with the same brush used for a few bad actors, who should be dealt with individually.
It certainly isn’t right for a Government to censor speech in public areas. If it’s okay to ban pro-life speech today, what will be banned tomorrow?
Naturally, MPs from the ruling party might disagree with me on that. I criticised a policy initiative that they support. That’s okay. As with all potential Government policies in a democracy, it’s right that it should be debated from different perspectives and eventually decided at the ballot box.
And yet, that notion of democracy was rejected when SNP MP Alison Thewliss took to the floor in the House of Commons the day afterwards, smeared my organisation as “extremist”, and called for me to be banned from the BBC.
The Honourable Member referenced a slanderous and unjustified claim from the Southern Poverty Law Center – a blatantly partisan activist organisation. Years ago, they pinned the label “hate group” on our global partner organisation in the U.S.. ADF has addressed this here.
What I can tell you is about the organisation I work for. ADF U.K. is a registered U.K. charity that seeks to promote fundamental freedoms and protect the human dignity of all people. We supported the rights of Rosa Lalor, a grandmother from Liverpool who was wrongly arrested during lockdown for going for a simple prayer walk. We helped a Glasgow priest challenge the Government last year when they disproportionately forced all churches to close, but kept off-licences and bicycle shops open. We helped a midwifery student, Julia Rynkiewicz, return to university after she was suspended simply for having pro-life opinions. The list goes on. We seek victories in court that will maintain the fundamental right to freedom of expression.
Surely the views of the American-based SPLC should have no bearing on my right as a Scottish woman to contribute to a Scottish national debate? ADF U.K. is neither “extremist” nor a “hate-group”. But these labels are the new pitchforks in the 21st century witch-hunts.
My tale will come as no surprise to most. The Scottish Government has been in a censorial mood. Last year it brought in the Hate Crime and Public Order Act, which will chill the conversation around family dinner tables with a seven year prison sentence hanging over anyone who says the wrong thing. And the singling out of women guilty of believing in something deemed “unacceptable” has been notable. Marion Miller was criminally charged for expressing gender critical views on Twitter, allegedly including a photo of a suffragette ribbon. Since the Hate Crime Act was passed, the pitchforks have been sharpened. Police Scotland have faced a tidal rise in reports of instances of “hate”, which largely revolve around silly disagreements on Twitter. You only needs look at what happened to our most famous resident author – she who will not be named – to know how quickly and viciously you can be smeared for sharing reasonable beliefs. For saying that women – particularly those who have been subject to sexual abuse — should have access to protected, women-only spaces, Rowling was accused of fanning a genocide. The hyperbolic outrage is never ending.
A democratic government should be encouraging debate on all policy matters. That requires hearing from people with whom it disagrees. It requires engaging with our concerns and ideas. Not shrieking “beware of the witches!” whenever we appear on TV.
Lois McLatchie is a communications officer for ADF U.K., a legal advocacy organisation.