Concerns over a threat to free speech remain “wholly unresolved” after the latest parliamentary debate on the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill, campaigners have said.
This morning, members of Holyrood’s Justice Committee debated several amendments to the draft legislation, including amendments to widen freedom of expression protections. Key free speech provisions were dropped by MSPs and will be revisited in final Stage 3 proceedings.
Controversially, an amendment to protect “discussion and criticism” of transgender identity was withdrawn by the government at the last minute. The move came days after the SNP faced accusations of ‘transphobia’ for seeking to allow any ‘criticism’ of trans issues.
Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf said he would seek to build “consensus” around a new free speech clause covering all the protected characteristics in the Hate Crime Bill – age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics.
Commenting on today’s proceedings, Jamie Gillies, spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, said:
“Today’s proceedings have driven a coach and horses through previous assurances offered by the Scottish Government. The issue of free speech protections remains wholly unresolved.
“MSPs on the Justice Committee have pledged to come up with a ‘catch-all’ free speech provision before Stage 3. However, drafting a provision that allows robust speech on the plethora of topics associated with the characteristics covered – not least contentious topics like transgender identity – will be no easy task. In all likelihood, the final result will be a weak, ill-defined clause that lacks the forensic detail required for criminal legislation.
“To make matters worse, MSPs will only have a few weeks to come up with a clause, outwith the normal parliamentary processes and behind closed doors. If an amendment is not agreed upon and approved at Stage 3, the bill could pass without any specific free speech protections.
“The freedom to espouse challenging, provocative and controversial views is fundamentally important. Free speech is the lifeblood of democracy. If a suitable solution cannot be found in the next few weeks, MSPs must not leave anything to chance – they must reject the Hate Crime Bill outright.”