Scots are facing a massive threat to their freedom of speech and religious liberty in the form of a controversial amendment to the Scottish Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has brought an amendment which could make “threatening, alarming or distressing behaviour” a crime with a prison sentence of up to five years.
The Scottish Government says it is designed to strengthen the law on stalking.
But critics say the low threshold and broad scope could cause many unsuspecting people, including Christians engaging in debate, to fall foul of the law.
Colin Hart, the Director of The Christian Institute, said the law has a “massive potential to undermine free speech and religious liberty”.
And in a legal opinion, leading Scottish QC Herbert Kerrigan and Solicitor-Advocate Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden make clear that the amendment would not actually need anyone to be distressed for an offence to have taken place.
The lawyers give examples of situations completely unrelated to stalking but which still could be affected.
They say protesters in an anti-capitalist demonstration where posters denounce bankers in strong terms could be charged.
The Christian Institute points out that at its most extreme the draft offence could criminalise private behaviour which is not intended to cause fear, alarm or distress, and which causes no one fear, alarm or distress.
The Institute also says that the offence as it currently stands goes even beyond the England and Wales statute under which the Christian hoteliers, Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, were charged with a crime for criticising Islam.
In the legal opinion the lawyers say “this is a hastily drafted amendment which has not given proper thought to this complex area of law”.
Criticism of the law has also come from anti-stalking experts.
Hamish Brown, a former detective for New Scotland Yard who was awarded an MBE for his work on stalking, said Mr MacAskill’s amendment would not do enough to help victims of the crime.
And one anti-stalking campaigner, Ann Moulds, called on MSPs to accept another amendment to the Bill which would create a specific offence of stalking, and avoid free speech problems.
She called for Rhoda Grant MSP’s amendment to be supported instead of Mr MacAskill’s.
During the Justice Committee consideration yesterday at Stage 2 Mr MacAskill agreed to withdraw the amendment and return to the issue at Stage 3.