A FORMER STV executive, acquitted of anti-English racism charges, has attacked the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, meant to tackle sectarianism on the terraces, claiming it gives the police "draconian powers".
Alan Smart, STV's former head of current affairs, was acquitted last Monday of charges of acting in a racially aggravated manner after singing a song telling "English Tories" to "go home" outside the Tory party conference in Stirling last year. The 54-year-old sang the lyric to the tune of the Irish rebel song, Go On Home.
A sheriff ruled that Smart had no case to answer and acquitted him of the charges, stating: "We have lost the art of drawing the line."
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Smart told the Sunday Herald: "It gave me a certain insight into how easy it is for the police to huckle someone off the street and bang them up. The gist is that it is extremely easy to get yourself arrested if a police officer is of a mind to arrest you, and I'd imagine it's even easier in the context of a football arena."
He drew comparisons between the charges he faced and prosecutions brought under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.
The most recent figures show that 268 people have been charged under the Act, which aims to clamp down on sectarian singing, gesturing and chanting at football games as well as religious hatred online.
Those opposed to the act claim it lacks consistency, leaves fans vulnerable, and wastes already-squeezed court resources.
Labour announced earlier last week that they would repeal the so-called "anti-bigotry laws" if they win the next Holyrood election.
Deputy leader Anas Sarwar described the law as "counter-productive", and said the party would rethink ways of tackling sectarianism in the terraces.
Smart's attack on the legislation has been supported by a number of leading legal figures.
Paul Kavanagh, a Glasgow-based solicitor who has represented more than 50 clients arrested under the act, including 26 people whose trials are currently ongoing, said: "The more I have been involved with the prosecution of football fans, whether it be Rangers, Celtic, Motherwell or Partick, the more I've come to the informed view that the legislation is dreadful. The difficulty is the implementation by the police.
"We now have individuals going to a game who have never been in trouble with police before and they are singing a song which does not contain any swearing, any religious or sectarian undertones, not talking about people's colour, race or creed, but because a police officer is of the opinion that somebody may be offended, they will arrest the individual."
Advocate Niall McCluskey, a human rights lawyer, said: "A lot of this legislation could have come under the old breach of the peace. What is required is the Scottish Government having the humility to take stock and actually address the concerns that have arisen."
Graeme Pearson, Labour's Justice spokesman and a former police chief, said the Bill has fostered bad feeling between fans and police.
Pearson also pointed out that police are placed in an "unenviable situation of making a series of subjective judgments about whether something is offensive ... That must be very challenging for an officer to decide in front of a crowd of 50,000 people."
Celtic last month called for an early review of the legislation, which critics say is driving fans away from football.
Minister for Community Safety Roseanna Cunningham said: "There is no place for sectarianism in Scotland, around football matches or anywhere else, and we introduced this legislation in response to Scotland's police and prosecutors when they told us they needed greater powers to take a hard line on sectarianism.
"The vast majority of football fans are law abiding, but when the minority step out of line we want to make sure the police and prosecutors have all the tools they need to tackle offensive behaviour."
She also stated the Act did not criminalise fans, but targeted "only those who indulge in hateful, threatening or otherwise offensive behaviour at football which risks inciting public disorder".
Stephen McAllister, Chief Inspector of the Football Co-ordination Unit for Police Scotland, said: "Police Scotland is aware that when the Offensive Behaviour at Football Grounds legislation was introduced the Scottish Government committed to undertake a review. In the meantime, we will continue to enforce the legislation as it stands."