The Society of Editors (SoE) has written to the government seeking urgent clarification of the remit of a review into hate crime legislation in England and Wales.
The Society’s intervention comes following the announcement yesterday by Minister for Women and Equalities Liz Truss that the Government has asked the Law Commission to review the coverage and effectiveness of current hate crime legislation. Announced as part of a statement by Truss outlining the government’s response to the Gender Recognition Act consultation she confirmed that, as part of the review, the Commission will consider whether transphobic hate crime should be considered an aggravated offence.
Responding to the announcement, the Society wrote to Truss seeking urgent clarification of the Law Commission’s remit and expressed caution that any recommendations would not seek to emulate the controversial Scottish Hate Crime Bill and threaten freedom of expression.
Ian Murray, Executive Director of the SoE wrote: “While the Society supports the principle of protecting people from prejudice, we remain concerned that any review of hate crime legislation in England and Wales must not threaten fundamental rights to freedom of speech.
“The Society has been vocal in its criticism of the controversial Scottish Hate Crime Bill and our members have expressed concern that a similar review of legislation in England and Wales may seek to replicate some of the more draconian recommendations threatening freedom of speech across the border.”
The Scottish administration’s Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, introduced in the Holyrood parliament earlier this year, aims to simplify and clarify the law by bringing together the various existing hate crime laws into a single piece of legislation. Proposals have proved controversial, however, with the Society, and others, criticising the proposed creation of a new crime of “stirring up hatred” against protected groups.
Murray added: “As you will no doubt be aware, the review of hate crime legislation in Scotland has been widely criticised by police, lawyers, authors, academics and the media as a very real threat to freedom of expression. The proposals, while on the surface designed to protect vulnerable people, have the potential to devastate legitimate debate and could see pressure groups given a platform to stifle or close down discussion of important issues by a host of individuals and platforms.
“While the Society welcomed a significant climbdown by the Justice Secretary this week following concerns about the bill’s impact on freedom of speech, the provisions remain inadequate and still pose a substantial threat to freedom of speech. Understandably, we remain concerned that any similar review of legislation in England and Wales must ensure from the outset that its remit does not also stray into unwarranted territories.
“As has been seen on multiple occasions in the past, well-intentioned legislation has a habit of straying beyond its original remit and the consequences of this can be chilling. I would welcome your clarification of the specific remit of the review into hate crime legislation in England and Wales and your assurances that this remit will not mission-creep beyond the specific question of aggravation into areas of viewpoint and legitimate expression.”