A former SNP depute leader is among campaigners raising “grave concerns” over controversial Scottish Government reform of hate crime laws.
Jim Sillars, a former SNP MP, has signed a letter to justice secretary Humza Yousaf urging him to ditch the most-criticised section of the proposed new Hate Crime Bill.
Yousaf has already said he will “reflect on whether there needs to be changes made” to the legislation – which has already been criticised by the Catholic Church, lawyers and the Scottish Police Federation, as well as several high-profile figures.
Comic Rowan Atkinson, writer Val McDermid and actor Elaine C. Smith have already raised fears the proposed new offence of “stirring up hatred” that is contained in the legislation could stifle freedom of expression.
A group including Sillars, together with human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell and Simon Calvert, deputy director of The Christian Institute, has urged Yousaf to drop this part of legislation.
A letter – also signed by Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute think-tank and Stuart Waiton, a lecturer in criminology at Abertay University – suggested if that were to happen there would be “broad support” for the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.
While the group said it did “not doubt the Government’s good intentions” in bringing forward legislation, it added it had “grave reservations about the draft ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in part two”.
The campaigners told the Justice Secretary: “Rather than introducing wide-ranging and unpredictable stirring-up laws, with all the attendant risk and controversy, we suggest that you instead bolster the implementation of laws already on the statute book.
“You would be commended for acknowledging the problems with part two of the Hate Crime Bill and abandoning the ‘stirring up’ offences.
“Without these controversial provisions, other aspects of the bill would achieve broad support.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The views offered on the Bill will be considered carefully and we will seek common ground and compromise, where necessary.
“It is important to stress that the Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, people can express controversial, challenging or offensive views as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended or likely to stir up hatred.
The Bill includes explicit provisions on protection of freedom of expression.
“England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have laws in place criminalising stirring up hatred in relation to religion and sexual orientation while Northern Ireland’s law also covers disabilities.
“The law should protect vulnerable groups and minorities, and this Bill – which follows an independent, judge-led review and is backed by a number of organisations – will increase confidence in policing to those communities affected by hate crime.
“We will fully consider the views collected in the consultation and continue to engage with key stakeholders as the Bill progresses through Parliamentary scrutiny.”
It comes after a poll for the Free to Disagree campaign group found that 87% of Scots believe free speech is an important right while almost three quarters (73%) think that disagreement is not a sign of hatred.
Almost two-thirds of those surveyed (64%) voiced support for a classical approach to free speech where “words that incite violence” are criminalised while just 29% said the law should criminalise “offensive” words