Free speech campaigners have welcomed an “assurance” by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that concerns over the Hate Crime Bill will be listened to “carefully” but urged her to “take action early” and radically amend the government’s proposals.
This afternoon, during a statement on the SNP’s Programme for Government 2020-21, Ms Sturgeon doubled down on the contentious Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, saying it will continue to progress through parliament.
However, recognising a significant public backlash in recent months, focused around free speech, she added: “I know concerns have been raised and I want to give an assurance today that we will listen carefully. Freedom of speech and expression is fundamental in any democracy”.
Responding to the First Minister’s statement, spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign Jamie Gillies said:
“We welcome the First Minister’s assurance that concerns over the bill will be listened to. Numerous groups including the police, the Law Society, and the Catholic Church have warned that the Hate Crime Bill as drafted could undermine free speech.
“If the government wants to win broad support for its draft legislation – much of which is uncontentious – they should take action early and table an amendment to remove Part 2 of the bill. Scrapping the ‘stirring up’ provisions is the only way to ensure that fundamental liberties are respected.
“Good legislation already exists to protect people. The Government has not demonstrated how new ‘stirring up’ offences will reduce the number of hate-related attacks on individuals in particular groups.
“Rather than introducing wide-ranging and unpredictable stirring-up laws, with all the attendant risk and controversy, we suggest that they instead bolster the implementation of laws already on the statute book.”
A poll commissioned by Free to Disagree and published on Sunday (Aug 23) revealed wide support for free speech and opposition to the hate crime plans.
The Savanta ComRes poll of 1,008 Scottish adults shows that almost 9 in 10 (87%) think free speech is an “important right”, 6 in 10 (63%) think disagreement and debate “benefit society” and 3 in 4 (73%) think disagreement is not a sign of hatred.
More than 6 in 10 respondents (64%) voiced support for a classical approach to free speech where “words that incite violence” are criminalised, whereas just 29% said the law should criminalise ‘offensive’ words. More than 6 in 10 (64%) respondents agreed that people today are “too quick to shut down debate”.
A significant number of respondents also expressed opposition to elements that form the basis of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill:
- 7 in 10 (69%) of Scots agreed that “For a criminal offence to be committed, there must be a proven intention to stir up hatred”.
- 3 in 4 (75%) said that the term ‘hatred’ “means different things to different people”.
- While many are uncertain about the specifics of the bill, more than 4 in 10 respondents (41%) agreed that a clause should be included in the bill to protect the freedom to publicly disagree with trans rights, with just 21% disagreeing.
The ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in Part 2 of the bill do not require ‘intent’ for an offence to be committed or include a free speech clause on trans. The wording of the draft legislation, including the term ‘hatred’, has also been criticised for being vague and open to abuse.
Free to Disagree has also written to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, urging him to scrap the controversial elements of the Hate Crime Bill.
A letter, expressing “grave reservations” over the ‘stirring up’ provisions and signed by campaign members including former SNP Depute Leader Jim Sillars was sent on Friday 21 August.
Issued on behalf of Free to Disagree by Tom Hamilton Communications. For media enquiries, contact:
Tel: 0141 639 8355
Mob: 07836 603977
Or Jamie Gillies:
Mob: 07761 506 732