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Jim Sillars, former deputy leader of the SNP signed a letter to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf urging him to ditch the most-criticised section of the proposed new Hate Crime Bill. The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill looks will extend the law on ‘hate crime’ covering particular characteristics, including religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity.
The new legislation will mean that words or behaviour considered to be “abusive” and “likely” to stir up hatred would constitute an offence.
A group including Mr Sillars along with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Simon Calvert, deputy director of The Christian Institute, has urged Mr Yousaf to drop this part of the legislation.
The letter, which is also signed by Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute think-tank and Stuart Waiton, a lecturer in criminology at Abertay University – suggested if that were to happen there would be “broad support” for the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.
The campaigners including Mr Sillars said: “Rather than introducing wide-ranging and unpredictable stirring-up laws, with all the attendant risk and controversy, we suggest that you instead bolster the implementation of laws already on the statute book.
“You would be commended for acknowledging the problems with part two of the Hate Crime Bill and abandoning the ‘stirring up’ offences.
“Without these controversial provisions, other aspects of the bill would achieve broad support.”
Within the letter, the group said it did “not doubt the Government’s good intentions” in bringing forward legislation, it added it had “grave reservations about the draft ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in part two”.
The controversial legislation has already faced criticism from the Scottish Police Federation, several lawyers, Catholic Church in Scotland and the Law Society of Scotland.
Mr Yousaf has already said he will “reflect on whether there need to be changes made” to the legislation.
He also gave several examples of speech that could become a criminal offence which includes pinning a transgender person to a wall or aggressively interrupting a transgender meeting.
He added: “These examples could both be caught by current legislation. Pinning someone up against a wall is more than threatening and abusive – it’s assault.
“If this incident was prosecuted it may also be an ‘aggravated offence’ due to the comments about transgender identity.
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“The scenario of a person bursting into a room full of trans men could also be an offence under the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act, which criminalises those who intentionally or recklessly cause fear or alarm.
“If the conduct Mr Yousaf cites is already covered by criminal legislation, it does beg the question ‘why do we need new offences at all?’ Especially given the significant risks to free speech outlined by experts.”
In response to the concerns, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The views offered on the Bill will be considered carefully and we will seek common ground and compromise, where necessary.
“It is important to stress that the Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, people can express controversial, challenging or offensive views as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended or likely to stir up hatred. The Bill includes explicit provisions on protection of freedom of expression.
“England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have laws in place criminalising stirring up hatred in relation to religion and sexual orientation while Northern Ireland’s law also covers disabilities.
“The law should protect vulnerable groups and minorities, and this Bill – which follows an independent, judge-led review and is backed by a number of organisations – will increase confidence in policing to those communities affected by hate crime.
“We will fully consider the views collected in the consultation and continue to engage with key stakeholders as the Bill progresses through Parliamentary scrutiny.”
It comes after a poll for the Free to Disagree, campaign group, yesterday found that 87 percent of Scots believe free speech is an important right while almost three quarters (73 percent) think that disagreement is not a sign of hatred.
Almost two-thirds of those surveyed (64 percent) voiced support for a classical approach to free speech where “words that incite violence” are criminalised while just 29 percent said the law should criminalise “offensive” words.
It comes after a similar piece of legislation known as the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was introduced in 2012.
This law made it a criminal offence for football fans to discriminate against certain traits such as religion, ethnic identity, class, or region at matches.
However, it was scrapped in 2018 following severe concerns over freedom of speech and claims that it unfairly targeted Scottish football fans.
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