The Law Society of Scotland says that freedom of expression could be threatened by the legislation which aims to modernise existing hate crime laws and enhance protection for those facing prejudice.
But there have been widespread concerns about impact it could have on free speech, with former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars among its critics.
The Law Society says there are “major flaws” in the Bill in a submission to MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee.
Society president Amanda Millar said: “We have significant reservations regarding a number of the Bill’s provisions and the lack of clarity, which could in effect lead to restrictions in freedom of expression, one of the foundations of a democratic society.
“We have real concerns that certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the Bill as currently drafted.
“Having full and proper debate in the Scottish Parliament will be essential in ensuring that new hate crime law can work as intended.
“It needs to ensure an appropriate balance is maintained to protect those in society who are most vulnerable to prejudice while preserving the right to comment or debate.”
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill would create an offence of “stirring up hatred” against a protected group, expanding on existing laws protecting racial groups. James Kelly, who spearheaded the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act in 2018, has “significant concerns” about some of the measures in the proposed new legislation.
Scottish Labour’s justice spokesman said he fears ministers have “not learned any lessons” from the six years the anti-sectarian legislation was on the statute books.
Mr Kelly said: “Under these proposals, a person can be criminalised for behaviour which another person finds insulting, whether they have meant it or not, which sets an alarming legal precedent and differs from law in England and Wales – where intent is required. The terminology within these proposals is concerning, especially around the use of ‘insulting’ - which is subjective and could cause serious legal confusion.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The Bill aims to modernise, consolidate and extend Scotland’s existing hate crime law, which has evolved over time in a fragmented manner – ensuring it is fit for modern Scotland.”