Councillors add voices to concerns over Scots hate crime laws

Town hall leaders in Scotland fear that controversial new hate crime laws could threaten free speech, a survey has found.

Sunday, 13th September 2020, 7:30 am
Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies

Town hall leaders in Scotland fear that controversial new hate crime laws could threaten free speech, a survey has found.

It has also emerged that the proposed Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill has attracted almost 2,000 submissions in a Holyrood consultation, one of the highest responses since devolution. The proposals have prompted concerns that writers, comedians and even pundits on TV shows could find them prosecuted if someone takes offence at their contribution – even if this was not the intention.

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Campaign group Free to Disagree has been in the vanguard of opposition to the proposals and has undertaken research among Scotland’s 32 local authorities seeking the views of elected councillors on the changes. It gathered responses from 14 per cent (176) of the country’s 1,227 councillors.

It found two-thirds opposed the Scottish Government legislation, with fewer than half (46 per cent) of the SNP councillors supporting it, while 25 per cent of Nationalists opposed it and 21 per cent were unsure. It also found seven in ten said it “threatens free speech”. A further seven in ten agreed that for an “offence under the Hate Crime Bill to be committed there should be a proven intention to stir up hatred”. At present, the provisions do not require any ‘intent’ on the part of the offender.

Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies said: “Local councillors, like others across Scotland, are highly critical of the government’s hate crime plans. Regardless of their individual party affiliation, they’re aware of the threat posed by the new stirring up of hatred offences. Every citizen in Scotland has the right to be protected from violence, intimidation and abuse. However, it has not been shown how these specific proposals would reduce crimes motivated by hatred. At the same time, numerous experts across Scottish society are warning of their potential to erode other vital rights like freedom of speech.”

Holyrood’s justice comm­ittee, which is scrutinising the Bill, has received nearly 2,000 submissions from organisations and the public. The Tories claim no other proposed Scottish Parliament law has attracted such a response. Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “The problem isn’t hate crime legislation in itself – it’s the dangerous way this Bill has been constructed and drafted by the SNP. As drafted, the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill threatens our fundamental right to freedom of speech and that’s why so many Scottish people are furious about it.”

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has insisted the legislation does not seek to “stifle criticism or rigorous debate” and has pledged to find a way of making it effective while still preserving freedom of speech.

He said last week: “I do accept that there is a lot of strong feeling and that it is incumbent on government and parliamentarians to try to see where we can improve the bill.”

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