On Sunday, I stood singing with thousands of my fellow Celtic supporters in Celtic Park. It wasn’t just because our team were being presented with the League Championship trophy (our fifth title in a row) or even because the sun was actually shining in Glasgow. No, many of us were bouncing because it now looks likely that the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act (OBFA), which has criminalised hundreds of football fans for singing ‘offensive’ songs, is set to become the first major battle of the new Scottish parliament.
Put another way, it looks like the OBFA is going to be scrapped. The Conservatives, Labour, the Greens and the Lib Dems all oppose the legislation, meaning that the Scottish National Party (SNP) – which introduced the legislation in 2012 – is outnumbered in the Scottish parliament by 65 to 63 seats. The failure of the SNP to secure an overall majority in the Scottish elections means that the legislation is now extremely vulnerable.
After the election, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson signalled her intention to repeal this legislation, but Labour MSP James Kelly got in first, announcing plans to table a member’s bill against the OBFA. And the four opposition parties are clearly willing to work together to scrap it. We shouldn’t be under any illusions. When it comes to civil liberties, these parties can be every bit as illiberal as the SNP. Nonetheless, the removal of this toxic legislation from the statute books would be huge victory for those of us who have fought long and hard against the OBFA.
Under the OBFA, you can be sent to prison for five years for singing a song that a police officer deems offensive, either at a match, on the way to or from a match, or even in a video posted online. There is no objective definition of what constitutes an offensive comment or song – it is an entirely subjective law. Instead, the police are left to decide what is and isn’t offensive. As a result, Dundee United supporters have appeared in court for calling Aberdeen fans ‘sheep-shaggers’ online; Celtic fans have ended up in police cells overnight for singing Irish republican songs; and Rangers fans have been sent to prison simply for writing and singing naughty things about Celtic supporters and Irish Catholics.
The overwhelming majority of people dragged before the courts under the OBFA have been working-class young men. This means that hundreds of young men have ended up with criminal records, have lost their jobs and, as a result, are unable to apply for all sorts of jobs in the future. Van-loads of police in riot gear have carried out dawn raids and arrests on those accused of breaching the act. The police have deliberately visited fans at their place of work in order to intimidate them. Some fans have even been stopped and questioned at airports when travelling overseas – as if singing a rude song makes you akin to a terror suspect.