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SoE welcomes changes to proposed Scottish Hate Crime Bill

Posted on: December 15, 2020 by Ian Murray

The Society of Editors (SoE) has welcomed the Scottish Government’s announced changes to its proposed Hate Crime Bill in the face of widespread concerns over threats to free speech.

Scottish Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, yesterday announced sweeping amendments to the controversial Bill, including extending freedom of expression protections to include age and transgender identity.

The changes come after months of concerns that the Bill would criminalise freedom of speech and create a chilling effect on media.

Mr Yousaf (pictured above) said he would bring forward amendments which would “among other matters, strengthen protections for freedom of expression.”

He added: “Through the whole process I have listened to concerns raised and proposed amendments to address these concerns. That approach will not change. I will continue to listen to concerns members may have about any aspect of the Bill and, where possible, will try and reach common ground.

Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors said the proposed changes were welcome but only when the precise details of what constitutes an abusive act under the new laws and what safeguards will be in place to protect freedom of speech will the true effects of the legislation be understood.

“The Devil is always in the detail. We still have concerns that if too broad the new Hate Crime laws will have a chilling effect on free speech and the media,” said Murray.

The Society of Editors has previously been vocal in highlighting its “grave concerns” over the proposals and has warned that the legislation has the potential to severely restrict free speech.

Murray said: “While the Society supports attempts to protect people from prejudice, it is essential that fundamental principles of freedom of expression and legitimate discussion are not lost amid attempts in Scotland to protect the vulnerable. 

Jamie Gillies, of the Free to Disagree campaign commented today (December 15, 2020) that serious issues with the proposed law still needed to be addressed.

“The government has pledged amendments to strengthen free speech protections in the bill, including on the crucial point of debate around women’s rights and transgender identity. Free speech clauses must be robust, or legitimate debate on various issues could be chilled.

“The government has also promised to further-define the term ‘abusive’ in the stirring up hatred offences. There is concern that his term is vague and subjective. It could create a low threshold for offending, catching behaviour that is insulting and offensive but not a matter for the police and the courts. Further definition of this term must be included on the face of the bill, to avoid uncertainty. It remains to be seen whether or not the government will do this.

“The precise purpose of the stirring up hatred provisions has still not been explained. The government has not specified what behaviour they would catch that is not already caught by existing laws. If the rationale and the scope of these offences is not articulated, surely there is no real argument for them? Particularly given the concern over an erosion of other, vital liberties.”