Election issue spotlight: Freedom of Expression Online

Following developments in the UK’s online harms framework and Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill, Scotland faces two threats to freedom of expression online.

The first  is the risk of laws creating a chilling effect on public discourse. If regulations are unclear, complex, or excessive, people will prefer to self-censor themselves. Platforms and service providers may also feel they have no choice but to proactively take down content. The second threat is the risk of a two-tier system, where certain kinds of speech may be legal online but illegal offline, and vice versa. When someone is abused online, the laws which apply to them should be the same laws applicable as if that abuse had happened on  the street.

Where the parties stand

The following statements were made by candidates during our Human and Digital Rights Hustings. View the full transcript and recording here.


“Clearly freedom of speech is really important to be able to express what you want, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t bring about hate and bring about comments which are inappropriate.

We do need to make sure that people can absolutely debate issues, you know I love debating issues and my five my four other colleagues here and I will agree on some things, but we disagree on lots of things. I hope we can do that in a way that respects each other, but we listen to each other, and I don’t think social media should be any different from that, and so I think that’s what we need to strive for, and I think we need companies that run these to step up and do more in regard to that. The reason the Conservative  group in this Parliament voted against the Hate Crime Bill was because in our view it infringed on individual human rights, particularly within the household, and particularly around the issue of free speech and being able to have that, and all legislation, I think, has to be checked carefully around that.”

Scottish Conservatives – Jeremy Balfour

Scottish Greens

“The Scottish Greens have in our manifesto looking at a disinformation to have an independent office to to look at this and to teach about it in schools as well to teach critical thinking.”

Scottish Greens – Kim Long


“So like other speakers, I think it’s right that people should be allowed freedom of expression, and you should be able to express views robustly, however what you can’t do, particularly in relation to protected characteristics is express those views in a hateful manner. This is a continually developing area and we’re going to need to continue to look at the laws to see that they’re strong enough to ensure that there are protections, and that people who do behave in a hateful manner online are taken to court on the matter. “

Scottish Labour – James Kelly

Liberal Democrats

“There is difficulty here because there is a freedom of speech, but that’s not a freedom from consequence. If you make the decision to go online and say something which is hate speech which attacks the right of others, that’s not engaging in debate, that’s making hate speech, and you need to face the consequences of that.”

Scottish Lib Dems – Fraser Graham

Scottish National Party

“I do think there’s an issue though around online abuse, absolutely, whether that’s politicians or whether it’s members of the public, and the fact that we somehow as a society genuinely think there’s certainly a small minority of people think that they can get away with saying things online in the privacy of their own homes that they would, you know, never say to people on a street or face to face is disturbing, and there’s a role for all of us absolutely to to tackle that. There is absolutely a role for the service providers and the site administrators and platforms to look at that. I thought the point about absolutely that was made around Trump actually from Fraser, that was sheer tokenism. Twitter took a stand on one man and leaves thousands of other tweets and pieces of abuse up, day in day out, against whether it’s celebrities or members of the public, so you know you need to do a wee bit more when you’re an organization that has a responsibility of that the name than than just banning one man. I think we we need to look at what we can do within the Scottish Parliament to assist on that I’m genuinely really disappointed that the Scottish Conservatives would want to repeal the Hate Crime Act that’s just went through. I think that does give a level of protection against hate crime while absolutely still ensuring that there’s a freedom of expression and a freedom to protest, because you have to bear in mind that that the stirring up hatred offences, people can still have controversial challenge and their views can even still be offensive to people as long as it’s not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended to stir up hatred, so that is a high bar that that we have, and indeed some may argue that that’s why we have so few hate crimes recorded, one of the reasons is because the bar is as has been high in the past and remains high.”

SNP – Shirley-Anne Somerville

What ORG wants

  • Freedom of expression will continue to be safeguarded in existing and future legislation;
  • What is illegal online will be illegal offline, and vice versa, and that there will not be a two-tier system;
  • That platforms, online service providers, and site administrators will be required to moderate online freedom of speech through the rule of law, not through terms and conditions;
  • That any regulations on freedom of expression will allow for notice and takedown, clear paths to recourse, and the right of appeal through transparent procedures ; and that
  • Any Scottish regulations on freedom of expression consider parallel legislative processes taking place in the UK, and in Europe, to ensure that freedom of speech is not fragmented across borders and boundaries.