Exclusive:Free Speech Union says it has lawyers on standby as Hate Crime Act comes into force

Toby Young, the founder of the campaign group, said it had been preparing for this moment

A free speech campaign group has warned it has lawyers on standby as controversial new hate crime laws come into force in Scotland.

Toby Young, the founder and director of the Free Speech Union (FSU), said it had been “preparing for this moment for some time”.

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The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act will come into force tomorrow amid intense publicity.

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It makes it an offence to stir up hatred on grounds of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity. Stirring up racial hatred was already illegal.

The legislation has come under fire from opponents who claim it could lead to a chilling of free speech and be open to vexatious complaints.

The Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (ASPS) previously warned the law could be “weaponised” by an “activist fringe” across the political spectrum.

The FSU is already supporting Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, who has threatened legal action against Police Scotland after it recorded a social media comment he made as a “hate incident”.

Writing in Scotland on Sunday, Mr Young said: "At the Free Speech Union, the advocacy group I created in 2020, we have been preparing for this moment for some time. When the Act received royal assent three years ago, we set up an office in Edinburgh, appointed a local man to be its director and created a Scottish advisory council consisting of prominent public figures committed to freedom of expression.”

He added: “We anticipate that tens of thousands of hate crimes will be reported in the next months, particularly as Police Scotland have said that, under the new law, ‘threatening or abusive material’ communicated via social media posts and ‘through public performance of a play’, which includes stand-up comedy, could be a ‘hate crime’.

"I expect the vast majority of these complaints won’t go anywhere, but unless Mr Fraser prevails the police will painstakingly record every one as a hate incident.”

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Mr Young said he was perhaps “being too sanguine about what percentage of complaints will end up in court”.

He said: “Just in case Police Scotland do engage in such zealous over-enforcement, the Free Speech Union has put an arrangement in place with one of Scotland’s top legal firms so we can have a solicitor on hand if any of our members are hauled in for questioning.”