A senior equalities official has defended the Scottish Government’s controversial hate crime Bill, despite the threat it poses to free speech.
Dr Lesley Sawers, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Scotland Commissioner, said that she and her colleagues “firmly support the ambitions of the Bill”.
If passed, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill would criminalise words deemed “abusive” and “likely” to stir up hatred against particular groups, and would not require any proof of intent.
In response to increased criticism of the Bill, Dr Sawers acknowledged “there is no right to be offended” but added “freedom of expression is not a free pass”.
She said: “It does not mean that someone can discriminate against or harass other people on the basis of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation”, before threatening: “prejudiced attitudes and behaviour are no longer acceptable or tolerated”.
However, there are already laws against discrimination and harassment in Scotland, including the Equality Act 2010.
While Dr Sawers claims the Bill will not affect “freedom of expression”, others have strongly criticised it for posing a serious danger.
BBC presenter and historian Neil Oliver called the Bill a “sinister threat” to free speech and “everything it means to be Scottish”.
A letter signed by 24 public figures, including actors Rowan Atkinson and Elaine C Smith, and author Val McDermid, said it could risk “stifling freedom of expression”.
Representatives of the press, judiciary, and police have all said the Bill poses a serious threat to freedom of expression.
A poll published last month by the Free To Disagree campaign showed that nearly nine in ten Scots believe that freedom of speech is important.
Among respondents, 69 per cent said that there must be “a proven intention to stir up hatred” for behaviour to be classed as a criminal offence.