SoE welcomes Scottish Hate Crime Bill climbdown but reiterates threat to free speech

Posted on: September 24, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors has expressed caution that despite a significant climbdown on Scottish hate crime legislation, the bill still poses a substantial threat to freedom of speech.

The decision to water down the Scottish Hate Crime Bill was announced by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday (23 September) amid concerns that the proposed law could stifle freedom of speech and cause uncertainty over whether legitimate acts of expression were open to prosecution.

The Society of Editors has been vocal in highlighting its “grave concerns” over the proposals and has previously warned that the legislation has the potential to severely restrict free speech throughout the UK. One of the most controversial aspects of the legislation includes the proposal to create a new crime of “stirring up hatred” against protected groups.

Responding to the announcement, Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said that it welcomed the Scottish government’s decision to rethink the legislation but that the bill required further amendments to satisfy legitimate concerns over its threat to freedom of expression.

He said: “From the outset the Society has highlighted the very real threat that the Scottish Hate Crime Bill poses to freedom of expression in the UK. While we welcome the government’s climbdown on some of our key concerns and the Justice Secretary’s assurances that the intention is now only to criminalise intentional behaviour, the legislation still remains a threat to established principles of free speech. The amendments are a step in the right direction but free speech provisions remain inadequate and there is still too low a threshold for offending.  

Murray added that it was essential that the remit of the legislation is refocused so as not to stray into areas of legitimate debate and expression and expressed concern that a similar review of existing hate crime legislation in England and Wales now posed a similar threat across the border. The Society has written to Women and Equalities Minister Liz Truss MP seeking clarification of the remit of a similar review into hate crime legislation in England. 

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 – and now in England and Wales – to protect the vulnerable. 

“Both the Law Commission and the Scottish government must ensure that fundamental rights to free speech are protected and that legitimate debate and discussion of important issues do not stray into the crosshairs of proposed legislation.”

The decision to amend the legislation was announced by Mr Yousaf in the Scottish parliament on Wednesday where he confirmed that the government had “reflected carefully” on concerns raised over the Bill.

He said: “I have listened to and reflected carefully on concerns raised over the Bill, particularly over the operation of the new stirring up hatred offences and concerns that these offences do not require that the accused intended to stir up hatred. 

“I recognise that there is a real risk that if the offences don’t require intent to stir up hatred, people may self-censor their activities through a perception that the operation of this aspect of the offences may be used to prosecute what are entirely legitimate acts of expression.

“The Scottish Government will therefore lodge stage 2 amendments to the Bill to make the new stirring up hatred offences ‘intent only’.

In announcing this “fundamental change”, Yousaf said that the Scottish government would continue to engage with stakeholders.

He added: “I hope this fundamental change will provide necessary reassurance that the new stirring up hatred offences strike an appropriate balance between respecting freedom of expression while protecting those impacted by people who set out to stir up hatred in others.

“I am confident that, going forward, the debate around the Bill will help build consensus on how we effectively tackle hate crime and how we can keep working together to ensure Scotland is an inclusive and forward thinking society.”