Debate about Charlie Hebdo Paris massacres raise free speech issues in Scotland as well

The Charlie Hebdo massacres raise major issues about the possible limits to free speech in a democratic society. Many of these issues are very close to home here in Scotland. In some of its communications the Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS) has referred to the ‘Church of Rome’ because it argues that the latter is an international organisation based in Rome which appoints bishops who govern the Church in Scotland according to doctrines and rituals decided in the Vatican. In contrast the Church of Scotland is a national self-governing organisation.

At a Scottish Parliamentary hearing into a petition by ESS to end the appointment of religious representatives, including some from the Roman Catholic Church, to otherwise elected Scottish council education committees, the latter Church accused ESS of using ‘hate speech’ because the term ‘Church of Rome’, which was used in supporting material and argument, was, in other contexts (Northern Ireland?), used in a critical and hostile manner to the Church. Cowed by this intervention MSPs and parliamentary officers made clear that the use of the term would not assist the case of the petitioners.

For good reasons of objective discussion, as stated above, and for vigorous political argument, there is a case for using the term ‘Church of Rome’. ESS is not engaging in ‘hate’ when it offers valid criticisms of the Church and the privileges that it enjoys. Indeed the secular principles of ESS have led it to argue that it is inappropriate for any religious group, like Catholics, to be excluded from succession to the throne.

It is not just extremist Muslims who seek to limit free expression. The Church of Rome attempts to control the very forms of speech that are used in parliamentary and public debate in Scotland.

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