The Scottish Government has passed its controversial Hate Crime Bill despite concerns being raised over its impact on freedom of speech.
The new legislation creates a criminal offence of “stirring up hatred” against protected groups, on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, age, disability and transgender identity. It expands on a similar race crime law that has been in place for many years, together with consolidating a number of different pieces of hate crime legislation.
A majority of MSPs backed the legislation, which Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said would send a strong message that offences motivated by prejudice “will not be tolerated by society”. The Bill was passed by 82-31 votes, with four MSPs abstaining.
Opposition politicians warned this could lead to individuals facing criminal charges for expressing controversial opinions.
Yousaf said: “There are some here who believe that if racism takes place at home that should not be prosecuted. My contention is the impact is the same. Regardless of where hatred is intentionally stirred up, the outcome can lead to a person of colour, a disabled person, someone who is gay or lesbian, an older person, or a transwoman, getting beaten up, threatened with violence or raped. Do we think they care that hatred was intentionally stirred up or took place at home?”
However, he insisted that safeguards had been added to the Bill which would ensure that freedom of speech would be protected. The Scottish government had accepted some changes to the Bill but most amendments were rejected during a lengthy and passionate debate on Wednesday which delayed the final vote until Thursday evening.
In an emotional speech, Labour MSP Johann Lamont had argued that sex should be a protected characteristic in the legislation as women were often the target of hate crime, but this amendment was rejected.
Scottish Conservatives justice spokesman Liam Kerr pointed out that concerns have been raised by victim’s groups, academics, lawyers and police staffing groups, saying: “We strongly opposed the attacks on freedom of speech throughout the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill. We voted against because it is a danger to freedom of speech. Criminalising what people say in their own home is too extreme. We agree that hate crime should be rooted out but the SNP should not have allowed a fundamental right to be trampled on in the process.”
“Only a few weeks ago, the Scottish Police Federation wrote to the Justice Committee convener saying there is substantial potential for many more people coming to adverse police attention as a consequence of elements of this legislation, regardless of potential freedom of expression provisions. If that is correct, there must be a risk that this bill as presented could have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
“Furthermore, this bill contains no defence regarding private conversations in your own home. The police could come to your home, having received a report of stirring up hate around the dinner table and take witness statements from those present. That, presumably, could include your children. I cannot vote for that.”
Tory MSP Adam Tomkins, convener of Holyrood justice committee, said: “Even now, even as amended, even after all the work we have done, this bill continues to pose a real risk to our fundamental rights and liberties – a risk that this parliament should not be taking.”
Labour MSP Neil Bibby added it was “deeply regrettable” that the legislation would not cover attacks based on the victim’s sex, saying it is “clear that women are subjected to hate because of their sex”.
Under this new law, people in Scotland will face the real risk of being reported to the police for stating their beliefs about such things as marriage, parental rights, sex-based rights and gender ideology. It also puts the police in a difficult position as it is unclear how they are expected to investigate complaints. There is no doubt that the threat of being reported to the police simply for having an unpopular opinion will be alarming for many people worried about the consequences of being prosecuted or losing their jobs.
We are deeply concerned that amendments for more robust protections on free speech were voted down by MSPS, including those covering conversations in private dwellings. It’s now vital that we and other campaign groups closely monitor the implementation of the legislation going forward in an effort to avoid damaging limits on freedom of expression on a range of matters.
For further information about the Bill, this piece in the Scotsman is useful reading.