The Scottish Conservatives have called on Holyrood to follow the example of a former First Minister and protect free speech.
In 2006, SNP MPs including Alex Salmond voted to remove the phrases “abusive or insulting” and “likely to” from the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill affecting England and Wales.
The phrases are almost exactly the same as those in the highly controversial Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, which are being criticised for creating a low threshold of criminality.
Free speech protections
In 2005, the Labour Government at Westminster introduced a Bill to create an incitement to religious hatred offence applying to England and Wales.
SNP MPs backed safeguards to ensure the offence only covered threatening behaviour intended to stir up hatred, with a strong free speech clause to protect robust debate.
But the new Bill in the Scottish Parliament seeks to extend the law on ‘hate crime’ covering certain ‘protected characteristics’, including religion, sexuality and transgender identity. If it passes, words or behaviour perceived to be “abusive” and “likely” to stir up hatred on these grounds would constitute an offence in Scotland. There would be no need to show that stirring up hatred had been intended.
Liam Kerr, the Scottish Conservatives’ justice spokesman said: “Even the SNP’s own MPs voted with the Conservative Party and against these pernicious phrases. They were poorly drafted and ill-considered at the time and nothing has changed.”
He added: “Organisations and individuals are lining up against this hated legislation. Now we know that even SNP stalwarts like Angus Robertson, Stuart Hosie and even Alex Salmond himself voted against these dangerous provisions.
“These MPs made a stand against censorship in 2006, the SNP must learn from their example and amend this bill to protect our fundamental right to freedom of speech.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf MSP said that he is “actively looking at areas of compromise”, but claimed that the legislation “will not prevent people expressing controversial” views.
Last week, the Scottish Police Federation slammed the Scottish Government’s controversial hate crime Bill, warning that it would significantly increase the police’s workload and damage freedom of speech.
The organisation, which represents 98% of the country’s police officers, said that the Bill would see “officers policing speech and would devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public”.
Calum Steele, General Secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, said: “The Bill would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private.”
They join a series of opponents including the Law Society of Scotland, the Society of Editors, the Scottish Newspaper Society, the National Secular Society, and The Christian Institute.