Press freedom threatened by Scottish hate crime Bill, MSPs told

Journalists could be investigated for potential hate crimes they have unknowingly committed under the Scottish Government’s controversial hate crime Bill, MSPs have been warned.

John McLellan of the Scottish Newspaper Society told the Holyrood Justice Committee that the legislation, which would criminalise ‘abusive’ words intended to ‘stir up hatred’ against particular groups, “poses clear dangers” for those in the media.

He said the SNP’s Bill fails to protect freedom of expression, and implored MSPs to include an exemption in the legislation for the news publishing industry.

‘Unintended consequences’

McLellan said implications of the proposed legislation “haven’t been thought through”.

He said: “It’s the unintended consequences of it that concern me. The problem, as I see it, is there’s a catch-all for newspaper publishers, and it poses clear dangers for us and that’s why I’m seeking an exemption for legitimate news publishing.”

He added: “It would be a brave person who would risk going to jail for seven years for something they had written, but the problem here is they wouldn’t necessarily know they had committed an offence when they wrote the piece and when it was published.

“It may be their view that it’s balanced, but if someone else takes offence and believes it’s in breach of the law and raises a complaint, the police would have to investigate.”

‘Bedrock of our democracy’

Liam Kerr, justice spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, said: “A free press is the bedrock of our democracy and any threat to it must be robustly challenged. Publishers have voiced grave concerns over what they will feel comfortable saying in the future.”

He added: “Any curbing of the freedom of the press would have disastrous impacts on our democracy and show Scotland in an extremely poor light.

“The Hate Crime Bill continues to face a mountain of criticism”.

Independence debate

Concerns were also raised that the Bill could unwittingly criminalise ‘robust debate’ around a number of high-profile issues.

Kieran Turner, public policy officer with the Evangelical Alliance in Scotland, told the committee the word “insulting” should be removed from the legislation, as it could “overlap with political debate” on issues such as independence and Brexit.

He said if the wording is to remain the same, there “should be a more specific defence to ensure people don’t get caught by mistake”.

Anthony Horan, Director of the Catholic Parliamentary Office, agreed, saying: “I don’t think people appreciate what that could criminalise – referenda, for example, attract very robust and sometimes very heated exchanges on the future constitution of the country and it can be a hotbed of insults and all of those could potentially be prosecuted under this provision. This legislation needs to be alive to that.”

Biblical beliefs

Horan also warned the Committee over the implications of the part of the Bill covering “possession of inflammatory material”, which could potentially include passages of the Bible.

He pointed out that the biblical understanding of the human person includes the belief “that gender is not fluid and changeable”, adding that such a belief “could be considered inflammatory by some people and lead to a police investigation”.

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