Critics have urged MSPs to defer scrutiny of controversial hate crime proposals until after the May election due to ongoing concerns about an erosion of free speech.

A joint letter signed by civil liberties groups, secular and faith groups, women’s groups and the Society of Editors and sent to MSPs today warns that draft stirring up hatred offences in the Hate Crime Bill need more work to ensure that free speech is not inadvertently undermined.

The groups caution that problems with the stirring up proposals are so significant, they will not be resolved in the remaining time before a final Stage 3 vote next month. The letter states:

“We strongly believe that producing workable provisions on the stirring up of hatred in this parliament is now entirely impracticable. These provisions could impact upon the most precious liberties in any democratic society: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion. They must be handled with the utmost care.

“We urge MSPs in every party to oppose Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill and allow other, non-contentious aspects of the bill to proceed without it. New proposals on the stirring up of hatred could be brought forward in the next parliament, where they would be scrutinised thoroughly over time, with renewed input by a wide range of stakeholders.”

The groups condemn a recent move by the Scottish Government and opposition MSPs to abandon several amendments that would have protected debate on contentious issues including transgender identity. The Government has instead pledged to produce a new ‘catch-all’ free speech protection covering all of the characteristics listed in the Hate Crime Bill. The letter adds:

“This move has, in our view, undermined the whole process of scrutiny to date. Amendments to safeguard freedom of expression on religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity – topics that are subject to strong and often controversial debate – were vitally important and agreed upon by the majority of stakeholders who have engaged with parliament over the last 12 months.”

“Providing separate and robust freedom of expression provisions on these topics was also the approach advocated by Lord Bracadale QC in evidence to the Committee last year. He said: ‘Such amendments to the bill would be an expression of the kind of line that we want to identify between offensive behaviour on one side and threatening and abusive behaviour on the other’.

“The idea that a workable ‘catch-all’ provision covering these topics, as well as the characteristics of age, disability, and variations of sex characteristics, can be agreed upon by the government and other parties before final, Stage 3 proceedings take place is, frankly, untenable. Manufacturing such a clause over the next few weeks, behind closed doors, will also necessarily preclude the views of parliament, stakeholders and the public from being taken into account.”

The letter was organised by the Free to Disagree campaign and signed by:

  • Ruth Smeeth, Chief Executive, Index on Censorship;
  • Emma Webb, Associate Fellow, Civitas;
  • Ian Murray, Executive Director, Society of Editors;
  • Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner;
  • Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party;
  • Stephen Evans, CEO, the National Secular Society;
  • Simon Calvert, Deputy Director, The Christian Institute;
  • Hardeep Singh, Deputy Director, Network of Sikh Organisations;
  • Trina Budge, Director, For Women Scot;
  • Dr Kath Murray, Research Fellow in Criminology, Uni. of Edinburgh;
  • Lucy Hunter Blackburn, researcher and former senior civil servant;
  • Lisa MacKenzie, independent researcher;
  • Dr Stuart Waiton, sociologist, Abertay University, Dundee;
  • Madeleine Kearns, journalist;
  • Jamie Gillies, Free to Disagree campaign.

A full copy of the letter can be accessed here: Time to Pause Hate Crime Plans


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