BBC joins backlash over SNP Hate Crime Bill ‘serious threat to freedom of expression’

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The organisation has become the latest to join judges, newspapers and actors to raise concerns about the Scottish Government’s proposed new Hate Crime Bill. MSPs having received an “unprecedented” 2,000-plus submissions when they called for views on it, Holyrood’s Justice Committee has published some of the responses it received.

Criticism of the Bill has centred around plans for a new offence of “stirring up hatred” with opponents concerned that this will stifle freedom of expression.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced by Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.

It looks to extend the law on ‘hate crime’ covering particular characteristics, including religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

If the law is passed by the Scottish Parliament, it means that words or behaviour considered to be “abusive” and “likely” to stir up hatred would constitute an offence.

BBC Scotland said it “strongly shares” concerns raised by two organisations about the impact of the Bill.

The Scottish Newspaper Society said it believes the legislation “poses a serious threat to freedom of expression in its broadest sense”.

They said: “We fully appreciate the good intentions which lie at the heart of the legislation, and we certainly welcome the abolition of the offence of blasphemy, but that is overshadowed by what we feel are some highly dangerous measures in the rest of the legislation and we have grave reservations about the considerable risks to freedom of expression they represent.”

Meanwhile, The Sheriffs’ Association who represents Scottish Judges said the legislation does not contain a definition of what would amount to “insulting” behaviour or material.

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They said: “If insulting behaviour or material is to be criminalised, a statutory definition should be included in the legislation.”

BBC Scotland also gave backing to Scottish Writers PEN about their concerns over writers’ freedom of speech.

As well as this, the Federation of Scottish Theatre, Playwrights Studio Scotland and Scottish Society of Playwrights warned that the legislation could make Actors criminally liable for what they say.

In a joint submission, the groups said that the Bill has “raised serious concerns among our members about the extent to which the proposed legislation will allow for the free and frank exploration of some of the most vital and contentious issues in society today.”

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They added: “ Section 4 of the Bill makes provision for persons associated with the public performance of a play to be held criminally liable for committing the offence of stirring up of hatred.

“It is therefore particularly important that appropriate scrutiny be given during Stage 1 to the impact of the proposed legislation on the public performance of plays.”

They also warned about freedom of expression and requested that the Bill be amended to include a defence for the presentation of plays which specifically references “taking the performance as a whole.”

Liam Kerr MSP, Scottish Conservative justice spokesman. said: “The volume, weight and content of these criticisms represents a devastating blow to the SNP’s controversial Hate Crimes Bill.

“Many of these consultation responses share our view that this Bill, as currently drafted, will curtail our fundamental right to freedom of expression.

“This level of substantial criticism cannot simply be waved away or ignored.”

Mr Kerr said: “Humza Yousaf must heed this avalanche of opposition and think very carefully about the most appropriate way to take this forward.”

In response to the concerns, Justice Secretary Mr Yousaf said: “I am grateful to all those who have responded to Parliament’s call for evidence, which we will consider very carefully.

“I know from experience, both personally and from the powerful testimonies of others, the physical and mental distress that hate crime can cause victims.

“What is apparent from the many responses made public so far is that there is wide support for the main purpose of the Bill – to make clear that crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice will not be tolerated in modern Scotland.

“The Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way but aims to achieve the correct balance between protecting those who suffer from the scourge of hate crime whilst respecting people’s freedom of expression.

“As Parliament considers the details of the Bill, we will work to find common ground and compromise where necessary.

“This is an issue around which Scotland’s Parliament can and must come together in order to protect the rights of everyone to live their lives free from harm or fear.”

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