Free speech campaigners have responded to a Government assurance that contentious hate crime legislation will be amended and urged MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee to see problem provisions scrapped.
In a debate this afternoon on a motion by the Scottish Conservatives, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said the Government would “work tirelessly” to engage with members of other parties and other stakeholders to come up with amendments to the bill. And he pledged to return with suggestions before Stage 1 scrutiny of the bill commences in October.
His statement comes after months of heated debate on controversial ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. Critics including the Scottish Police Federation, Faculty of Advocates and Roman Catholic Church warn that these ‘vague and subjective’ proposals endanger free speech, without offering additional protections to victims.
During the debate this afternoon, MSPs from every party expressed concerns over Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill.
Tory Justice Spokesman Liam Kerr, who tabled today’s motion, warned that the bill risks “serious unintended consequences”, including a “potential chilling effect on free speech”. He questioned whether serious issues with the bill, and the ‘stirring up’ offences in particular can be addressed in the current “extraordinary timetable” the parliament faces:
Mr Kerr added: “This bill is not robust. It is vague in the extreme. I have a real concern that scrutinising the legislation is not possible in the current parliamentary timetable and amidst the wider coronavirus pandemic.”
Scottish National Party (SNP)
In a blow to the Scottish Government, backbench MSP Ruth Maguire said that she shares concerns expressed by the Humanist Society Scotland that Part 2 of the bill could “stifle freedom of expression”.
Sandra White MSP also shared the many concerns she has received from her constituents.
Labour’s Rhoda Grant also spoke in the debate. She argued that hate crime has “no place in modern Scotland” but said that “freedom of speech must be protected” and the bill as it stands is “not fit for purpose”.
Ms Grant said that the ‘stirring up’ offences will “catch much more than hate crime and breed intolerance and hatred” by setting “the very people it claims to protect against one another”. And she warned that Labour will withdraw their support if the “legislation remains defective”.
Scottish Liberal Democrats
Liberal Democrat Justice Spokesman Liam McArthur said Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill needs “urgent and radical surgery”. He warned that undermining freedom of speech would lead to other fundamental freedoms being “diminished and devalued” and argued that the “freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having”. He added: “In an attempt to make bad people nicer we must not make good people criminals.”
Green MSP John Finnie noted concerns on Part 2 of the bill by groups including the Faculty of Advocates and said he would “listen to views on ways to improve the bill” as he joins other Justice Committee MSPs in scrutinising the bill.
Free to Disagree comment
Speaking after the debate Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies said:
“We’re encouraged by Humza Yousaf’s commitment to amend aspects of the Hate Crime Bill. The Government is under immense pressure from groups across Scottish society to ditch Part 2 of the bill and the controversial ‘stirring up’ offences.
“These vague proposals could seriously undermine freedom of expression by making merely offensive speech, writing and communications by citizens a criminal matter. Debate on controversial issues would also be affected.
“All of us support efforts to help victims. Every citizen in Scotland has the right to be protected from violence, intimidation and abuse. However, changes to the criminal law must not unintentionally erode other vital rights like freedom of speech.
“We call on the Government and MSPs in every party to ensure that free speech rights are not undermined by any aspect of these well-meaning hate crime proposals.”
In a message to MSPs on Holyrood’s Justice Committee Mr Gillies added:
“The Justice Committee will meet in the coming weeks to consider what action is necessary on the Hate Crime Bill. We firmly believe that the best course of action they can take is to strike down Part 2 of the bill and progress other non-contentious sections. The government has not demonstrated how Part 2 of the bill would give additional help to victims, and Part 2 doesn’t command the support of legal experts.
“In taking these specific steps, the Committee will ensure that free speech is upheld and settle the anxiety being felt by the Scottish public over the Hate Crime Bill. We trust they will consider this action as they come to scrutinise the bill in the months ahead.”
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