Big questions for Police Scotland

Last summer, the Edinburgh-based, then law student Sophie Stephenson gained notoriety after boasting on Twitter that she had gone out to dinner wearing a Hezbollah T-shirt.

At the time, Campaign Against Antisemitism reported Ms Stephenson to the police, alleging that she had committed a criminal offence under section 13 of the Terrorism Act 2000.

That section reads as follows (emphasis added):

Section 13 – Uniform

(1) A person in a public place commits an offence if he—

(a) wears an item of clothing, or

(b) wears, carries or displays an article,

in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that he is a member or supporter of a proscribed organisation.

(2) A constable in Scotland may arrest a person without a warrant if he has reasonable grounds to suspect that the person is guilty of an offence under this section.

(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to—

(a) imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months,

(b) a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or

(c) both. 

Under Schedule 2 of the same Act, the military wing of Hezbollah is a “proscribed organisation”. The idea that Hezbollah has separate military and political “wings” is of course a fallacy, but, unlike some, Ms Stephenson did not even pretend to be supporting the political “wing” only. On the face of it, therefore, Ms Stephenson appears to have committed a criminal offence under section 13.

It has now emerged, however, that Ms Stephenson will not be prosecuted. This raises challenging questions for Police Scotland.  There has been only one reported conviction under section 13: the 2004 case of Rankin v Murray which, coincidentally, also concerned events North of the border. Mr Rankin was convicted of the offence after passing through a port on the West Coast of Scotland wearing a ring which prominently displayed the initials ‘UVF’. This had prompted police to suspect he was a member or supporter of the proscribed Ulster Volunteer Force. The conviction was upheld on appeal. Lord Hamilton, one of the appeal judges, remarked (with a delightful Scottish turn of phrase) that

While the manner and circumstances of the offending in this case may… be at the least serious end of the spectrum of conduct against which s 13 strikes, it is not, in our view, outwith the range of the legislative intent.

The implications should be obvious. If wearing a ring emblazoned with the initials ‘UVF’ is “at the least serious end of the spectrum of conduct against which s. 13 strikes”, wearing a T-shirt which bears the Hezbollah emblem would appear to be at the other end of the spectrum and therefore all the more within “the range of the legislative intent”. It therefore seems surprising at best that Police Scotland have decided not to prosecute Ms Stephenson.

Police Scotland have not disclosed their reasons for declining to prosecute. There may of course be pertinent information of which we are not aware. For instance, it is unknown whether Ms Stephenson actually displayed the T-shirt “in a public place” or just wore it under a top and then paraded it on Twitter when she got home. Perhaps Police Scotland decided that the cost and difficulty of finding Ms Stephenson’s current whereabouts and prosecuting her outweighed the benefits of doing so.

The contrast between Rankin v Murray and the case of Sophie Stephenson nevertheless remains clear. In 2004, the Scottish police were prepared to arrest and prosecute a man who wore a ring bearing the initials of a group whose aims – while clearly reprehensible – were limited both in scope and in geography. In 2017-18, they have declined to take action against a woman who boasted of wearing a T-shirt displaying the emblem of a group whose leader is on record as desiring the death of every Jew on the planet. Whatever Police Scotland’s reasons, there appears to be an obvious and distressing double standard.

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