New hate crime laws ‘threaten freedom of expression’

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf

Controversial plans to introduce new hate crime laws in Scotland would mark a “threat to freedom of expression” MSPs have been warned.

The BBC, Sheriffs Association and newspaper chiefs are among a range of civic leaders who have raised concerns over aspects of the proposed new legislation.

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Their views are among more than 2,000 submissions which have been sent to Holyrood’s Justice committee.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has insisted that the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill does not seek to stifle public debate but said the government will seek to find “compromise over concerns which have been raised.

But he insisted the main purpose of the bill is to address crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice which “will not be tolerated in modern ­Scotland.”

Concerns have previously been raised over the prospect of people being prosecuted for behaviour deemed “insulting” and that an offence may be committed even where there was no intent to do so.

It is feared that pundits on current affairs shows or journalists voicing controversial opinions in a newspaper column may find themselves prosecuted.

And the Sheriff’s Association call for the term “insulting” to be removed from the legislation. “There is no definition of what amounts to “insulting” behaviour or material,” the body states in a submission.

“If insulting behaviour or material is to be criminalised a statutory definition should be included in the legislation as this goes beyond what has previously been criminalised.”

The Scottish Newspaper Society warns that publishing “robust opinion and comment” is part accountability in a democracy, but that the legislation creates a “potent weapon” to thwart this.

It said: “We strongly believe this bill represents such a considerable threat to freedom of the press that if it does make it into statute it must only be with absolute exemptions to prevent expensive, damaging and dangerous investigations before they start.”

And a statement from BBC Scotland said: “BBC Scotland strongly shares the concerns expressed by the Scottish Newspaper Society as to the impact on freedom of expression of this Bill.” Opposition parties at Holyrood are now calling on the Scottish Government to rethink the bill.

“Humza Yousaf must heed this avalanche of opposition and think very carefully about the most appropriate way to take this forward,” Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said.

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