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Football fans need free speech, too!

A man has been jailed for singing a song that mocks a religious leader, yet liberty campaigners have said nothing.

Imagine the scene: a young man is led away in handcuffs to begin a prison sentence as his mother is left crying in the courtroom. He is 19 years old, has a good job, has no previous convictions, and has never been in trouble before. These facts cut no ice with the judge, however, as the crime is judged so heinous that only a custodial sentence is deemed appropriate. The young man in question was found guilty of singing a song that mocked and ridiculed a religious leader and his followers.

So where might this shocking story originate? Was it Iran? Saudi Arabia? Afghanistan? Perhaps it was Russia, a variation of the Pussy Riot saga, without the worldwide publicity? No, the country in question is Scotland and the young man is a Rangers fan. He joined in with hundreds of his fellow football fans in singing ‘offensive songs’ which referred to the Pope and the Vatican and called Celtic fans ‘Fenian bastards’.

Such songs are part and parcel of the time-honoured tradition of Rangers supporters. And I have yet to meet a Celtic fan who has been caused any harm or suffering by such colourful lyrics. Yet in sentencing Connor McGhie to three months in a young offenders’ institution, the judge stated that ‘the extent of the hatred [McGhie] showed took my breath away’. He went on: ‘Anybody who participates in this disgusting language must be stopped.’

Several things strike me about this court case. For a start, if Rangers fans singing rude songs about their arch rivals Celtic shocks this judge to the core, I can only assume he does not get out very much or knows little of life in Scotland. Not that his ignorance of football culture is a surprise – the chattering classes have always viewed football-related banter with contempt. But what is new about the current climate is that in Scotland, the middle-class distaste for the behaviour of football fans has become enshrined in law.

This new illiberal climate has created a situation where football supporters are increasingly viewed as a public-order incident waiting to happen. Tragically, young fans like Connor McGhie are now fair game because those in powerful positions don’t like what they sing. They have been demonised and criminalised for many years, a trend which reached its logical conclusion last year with the introduction by the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Act, which made it a criminal offence to shout or sing offensive slogans. The consequence is that to be a Celtic or Rangers fan today is to be watched over, regulated, censored and generally treated like a threat to society. There is no discrimination towards different groups of fans – all are treated equally badly. It was this time last year that I wrote on spiked about a dawn raid on the home of a 17-year-old Celtic fan, who was remanded in custody for allegedly singing a republican song the police objected to. In short, the civil liberties of Celtic and Rangers fans alike are now fair game to be trampled on.

What is also noticeable about the imprisonment of McGhie for singing songs is the response of civil-liberties activists and religious-freedom campaigners. Or rather, the lack of response. There has been complete silence. Where are all those who protested vehemently against the detention of Pussy Riot for making similarly profane statements in a Russian cathedral? Where are all those newspaper editorials howling in rage against the incarceration of this young Rangers fan? Perhaps if he stormed into St Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow, the spiritual headquarters of the Catholic Church in Scotland, and hurled obscenities at worshippers, he would attract more support.

The other thing that strikes me is how anti-Catholic prejudice seems to be tolerated when it comes from our ‘national treasures’, like Stephen Fry or Richard Dawkins, but not when it comes out of the mouths of football fans.

When the Pope visited Britain two years ago, liberal campaigners lined up to accuse him of everything from hatred of women to paedophilia. To my knowledge, none of these words were deemed offensive enough to the UK’s Catholic community to prompt arrests or detentions, yet when a Rangers fan shouts of his hatred for the pope, that fan is locked up.

Tolerance, it seems, exists for those safely ensconced in polite society but not for Rangers or Celtic supporters, the great majority of whom are just ordinary working-class guys who love their team and enjoy expressing their passion for 90 minutes a week. True, they are not observing polite dinner-party etiquette when at a football match, and those of a more delicate nature should perhaps avoid Celtic or Rangers games. But part of the ritual of supporting a team is to wind up your rivals and, for some, this involves being raucous and boorish and hurling the occasional insult.

At the time of writing, Connor McGhie has been released on bail pending an appeal. Young men like him need and deserve the support of people who claim to care about free speech and civil liberties. This support should not be reserved for nice, respectable people, and withheld from those deemed less respectable. Despite my fanatical support for Celtic and my deep loathing for Rangers, there are things that cut through football rivalry. The right to shout the slogans we choose during the game is one of them.

By Kevin Rooney

Kevin Rooney is a teacher based in London.

This article  first appeared at Spiked online


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10 years ago

Interesting article, and again i commend etims for putting all points of view across and not toe-ing some pre-agreed party line.
I agree that civil liberties must be protected and there is a clear imbalance in the way these are responded to towards different sections of society, and i agree that the young lad was dealt with particulary harshly, but we have to look at the reasons behind what people are asying and how they are saying it, that would determine if it is tolerable (as in right to free speach) or not. I don’t think you can compare legitimate protest with the mouthings of your average Rangers fan at a match or in the street.
To say that Stephen Fry is perjudiced against Catholics – like me, he is atheist (simply put) and perhaps like me find all organised religions untrustworthy and outdated – not against worshippers of a religion themselves. Your point is good but your examples and comparisons are very poor.

10 years ago
Reply to  Desi Mond

Absolutely, these topics have to be ‘out there’ and known to all.
Didn’t know about Caley thing – it’s a sign of times that the judge actually disnissed them, sure they never bothered dismissing untrustworthy police officers before! 🙂

10 years ago

A sledgehammer to crack a nut. As with most judges and magistrates, the normal world is an enigma to them. The sloppily written “Bill” against football chants et al forced through by the SNP is responsible for this. Put the judges/magistrates and their families in a council estate for a month, and let their own homes be swopped. Anyone think that would sort out their worldview/mindset?

10 years ago

I’m a Rangers fan, and I got linked to this through the interweb.

It’s refreshing to see an article that provides some cross fan context of how absurd these laws actually are. Whilst neither set of fans is likely to admit it, we are politically singing off the same sheet on this issue, or certainly near as damn it!

I don’t condone what Mr McGhie said, it was stupid, but lets have some context here. 3mths in jail, for stupidly shouting a slogan. I can think of far, far worse crimes that invoke nowhere near as harsh a penalties. For instance, I was involved in a car accident caused by a drink driver, and he was absolutely nowhere near likely to go to jail for doing something, which most people would agree is, far worse.

It extends further than that though. Both clubs have did well to discourage sectarianism, and indeed is it even a ‘real’ problem any more? This really is an anti Ranger and anti Celtic law. Nobody really cares that much about what Aberdeen have to say, and certainly to us Rangers fans, they may even be worse than Celtic! The law certainly isn’t applied to them!

10 years ago
Reply to  Bdg


I know that the author actually put the situation in a much broader context but to keep it within the realms of football but with no intention to express any bias, what Connor did, said or sang can never bear comparison to a fan physically attacking a manager in a public arena and in front of thousands. Yet, for whatever reason, this perpetrator is found not guilty. Absurdity is a word sadly lacking the required impact in this context.

10 years ago

I have had a hectic day so my comments are going to be very brief. On the whole I think Kevin” article is an excellent expose of an utterly incompetent and stupid piece of legislation. His social comment reverberates loudly in the hearts of all those seeking equality in the distribution of justice. I most certainly agree with his premise that much of the re-action to all of this idiocy is class orientated if not driven. What a sad country Scotland is developing into on so many fronts.
Can I just say that, in my view, I did not understand Kevin to be attacking what Mr. Fry or Mr. Dawkins say. I think he is merely pointing out the injustice of ‘national treasures’, as he describes them, being ignored for making as ‘insidious’, as the judge has viewed it, statements about religion (I do not accept they target the Catholic Church alone) very much in the same vein as the songs of young Connor McGhie. Though, as an aside, I have to say that the absolute egotistical intolerance of Professor Dawkins for opinions other than his own, I find highly objectionable.
The bottom line is that the new laws are bazaar at best and outlandish in reality. I think we must all agree with that. Unfortunately, their will be many more young lives like Connor McPhie’s ruined by them before or if anyone recognises the damage.
Thanks for posting this, Desi.


ralph malph
10 years ago

Its sadly a sign of the times. Over a beer a few of us got talking about this, and a conspiracy theory was born. Basically, the powers that be want us all to stay home where we can’t cause any bother. We laughed at first, but also realised that there might be some truth in it.

My theory is that all those people who went to uni to study useless stuff like sociology and the “life sciences” had to be employed somewhere, so the govt could pretend the nation was highly educated, they gave them all some crayons and offered bonuses for the most ridiculous ideas.

Unfortunately, someone somewhere took them seriously.

Its ridiculous that anyone can be jailed for singing. No matter what they are singing. Unless its Robbie Williams.

10 years ago
Reply to  ralph malph

aye jail that williams cretin he does more damage than any celtic or rangers fan !

10 years ago
Reply to  ralph malph


It would have better to have arrested Big Stew for greetin’ :>))

10 years ago

“I have yet to meet a Celtic fan who has been caused any harm or suffering by such colourful lyrics”

I have to strongly disagree with the above statement. Seeing with my own eyes the end product of “colorful lyrics” on a pavement in 1996 in Bridgeton cross. That is what I describe as a young life ruined. Celtic fans are no doubt aware that many young men in the west of Scotland have been slaughtered for simply being Fenian bastards. You seriously need to educate yourself as to the difference between hate speech and the freedom of speech.

To think this is just the toff’s trying to suppress the working classes, involves far to great a suspension of disbelief for a rational person to swallow. I refuse to tolerate this kind of hate speech. Wether it is inside or outside of Football stadium. This is not a culture war, hate is hate no matter how you wish to paint it.

10 years ago
Reply to  John G


I think we are on two distinctly different levels here. I would agree that there are those that have and still do step beyond the boundaries. But, come on, to say that singing songs that have been part of the Celtic/Rangers culture for years is the root cause of violence, is similar to the claim that action films breeds psychopaths. Personally, and can I say that I have had contact with few psychopaths in my time, there is much more than movies in their twisted minds. Besides, even you have to admit that these stupid new laws neither improve what already existed, on the contrary they made existing laws absurdly unworkable, nor get to the rot of the problem that so rightly disturbs you – and me, may I add.
By the way, Ralph, how did you know I had a sociology and psychiatry degree? Am I that blatantly dim? :>))

10 years ago
Reply to  Pensionerbhoy

Should have been ‘root’ of the problem. It’s the sociologist slipping out or up!

10 years ago
Reply to  Pensionerbhoy

Of course I knew. I sat next to you in the exam

10 years ago
Reply to  John G

The crime you refer to, and it is undoubtedly a horrible and inexcusable crime, was a crime of violence, a crime of hatred which was , and is unacceptable by any standards.

It was the act of violence which ruined the young mans life. Whilst i may be guilty of splitting hairs here, the song itself did not cause the life to be ruined. Of course, I accept that the song, or singing or chanting, may have incited the offence.

However, not every chant, not every song and not every word of hate has this horrific outcome. There are other factors, and I think that some people are just plain evil, Society refuses to accept that, and blaming it on the parents, the tv show, or some words put to a tune is just merely trying to make excuses, but does provide work for those who don’t know enough about life to try to make it better for everyone else. Trying to find a reason to allow us to hide from the simple fact that some people want to harm other people because they think they are different.

Honestly, do you think stopping people from singing about it will stop them doing it?

10 years ago
Reply to  Ralph Malph

Pensioner Bhoy

Action films are works of fiction. The culture and actions of hatred and extremism are still alive and squirming in Scotland.

Ralph Malph,

Ask yourself do you miss the artist formerly known as “the establishment” singing about wading up to their knees in our collective blood? Are football grounds/society better or worse for outlawing just one toxic ditty that was the billy boys?

I will be the first to put my hand up and say, I don’t miss it. I gleefully pish upon it’s memory.

We are and always will be changing society.

To draw a relevant parallel of change. I don’t miss being a young boy having my feet swept away from me, grasping for breath, outside of the Celtic end at the 1985 Scottish cup final.

Many years later, Hillsborough became a reality for our collective generations. Politicians did indeed intervene and we now have all seater stadia. Our football culture did not die…we progressed.

Many still lament the meddling of the government into our game. In civilised societies , hatred is never tolerated. Football stadiums are not the sole preserve of young and old white men, who sometimes wish to express sentiments of hatred and violence. To me it’s a place, I wish to take my wife and kids to enjoy a game of football.

Ralph, how a judge interprets the law and deals with sentencing is certainly worth debating. I’m with you on that. However, that is a very valid and entirely separate issue. We only need to flip that phone on it’s side to see a bigger picture. As a society and a Celtic support we should never tolerate hate. That is a non-negotiable. We should be careful of group think that advocates on behalf of the rights of curious, funny men in black hats. The same men who wish to set agendas and cultural norms.

A culture of hate enables the fringe elements of society to feel validated.

The real victims of Scotland are young and dead. The outraged protagonists and their potential sympathisers are not and never will be victims.

Respectfully yours in celtic

Bondi B.
10 years ago

…the case should have been through right out of court on the grounds of childhood trauma: bucksake being a full blown bluenose and being named Connor. Ah blame the parents.

all joking apart, some of the rants I’ve read on “other” sites are more insidious than some numpty mouthing off about the pope or queen. Just ma opinion, like!!!

Bondi B.
10 years ago

..and whilst am on ma rant…and robbie williams got a mention previously, me & ma mates used ti love belting out to his tune “angels” …..”im loving Celtic ( or, hating rangers ) instead.”

Purile, ah know.


Stephen O'Donnell
10 years ago

I confess to having said far worse about the Pope, his church, the Church of Scotland and other religions. I have done so, confident in my belief that I am entitled to express my opinions, and even to offend other in so doing.

This legislation on chants at football games, combined with the recent laws on offensive electronic communications (i.e. on Facebook and Twitter) serve only to fan and not extinguish the flames of sectarianism. This policing of thoughts opinions and speech, by threat of jail time itself offends any notion of natural justice.

Whatever happened to “”Breach of the peace” in instances where the peace has been breached?

10 years ago

That’s a wonderful article and I agree with it almost entirely. I take exception to only the last line:

“The right to shout the slogans we choose during the game is one of them.”

Whilst it should not be a criminal offemce to shout, chant or sing something that soemone else may find offensive, those indulging should not feel free to do so.

It is a righteous plight of the football governing bodies to erradicate this behaviour from the game and they should continue to impose sanctions upon clubs who do not manage to do this.

It is also, partly as a consequnce, a righteous plight of individual clubs to erradicate this behaviour from their grounds and they should impose sanctions upon those who indulge in such behaviour.

10 years ago

Freedom of Speech is often used as an excuse by those who like to be free to offend others. The litany of hate crimes perpetrated in Scotland, predominantly against the Catholic/Irish minority is underpinned by the bigotry this young man espoused. This is NOT banter, it is not ‘tradition’ and it is completely untrue to say that there are no Celtic supporters harmed by this. This is not something I want my child exposed to but the’it’s only banter brigade’ seem content to allow expressions of hate toward themselves and their children to go unchallenged. There are serious issues surrounding the sectarian divide in Scotland, issues that have caused physical and mental harm, even death and I personally welcome any signal that sends out the message that the ‘traditions’ of so called football fans are outdated and will not be tolerated in a country trying to drag itself toward modernity.

Gerry Kelly
10 years ago

I agree with John G! Some people do take offence at these songs and statements and so they should. I agree it may be the sledge hammer to crack a nut scenario as stated, but it doesnt mean its acceptable. People think it fair game to go to the football and sing and shout these songs, well I don’t. Its not what I go to watch football for, however, other cleary do.

Gerry Kelly
10 years ago

Oh and sorry Kevin you note that you are a teacher based in London, it this supposed to be a statement of credability.

You mad about ETims or just plain mad? Why not buy the t-shirt at