Free speech campaigners welcome Justice Committee report

Free speech campaigners have welcomed a new report by Holyrood’s Justice Committee on the Scottish Government’s contentious Hate Crime Bill.

A Stage 1 Report on the bill was published this morning, ahead of a parliamentary debate next week. It calls for several, significant amendments to the proposals.

In a statement accompanying the report, Committee Convener Adam Tomkins MSP said “balancing freedom of expression and legislating to ensure hateful actions can be prosecuted is a difficult task”.

“We believe that, if amended in line with our unanimous recommendations, this Bill should be fit to protect the communities it affords extra protections to without encroaching on the ability of citizens to have robust debates, hold views others find unpalatable and express themselves freely.”

Jamie Gillies, spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, commented:

“We welcome this report by Justice Committee MSPs. They’ve clearly taken the concerns of stakeholders, including members of our campaign, on board in urging sensible amendments to the controversial stirring up hatred offences.

“It’s particularly good to see a call for more clarity on the subjective terms ‘abusive’ and ‘inflammatory’ and a ‘deepening’ of free speech provisions. Amendments along these lines will help to mitigate the threat to free expression described by so many groups over the last six months.

“There are other changes we wish to see. A specific free speech clause on transgender issues is crucial. We’d also like to see a dwelling defence, protecting speech in the privacy of the family home. If MSPs adopt these added safeguards, they will increase public confidence in the proposals.

“As ever, the best way to resolve remaining uncertainties and ensure that vital liberties are protected is to drop the ‘stirring up’ offences from the Hate Crime Bill and allow other non-contentious provisions to proceed.

“Existing laws catch threatening and abusive behaviour and statutory aggravators exist to punish crimes motivated by prejudice. By consolidating existing provisions and investing in the current framework, the government can aid the police and prosecutors in tackling truly hateful behaviour.”

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