Scottish lawmakers are at loggerheads over plans to make “stirring up hatred” a criminal offence, with critics calling it “an attack on free speech”.
While Jewish representatives in Scotland support the planned Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill, politicians north of the border now warn of “serious problems”.
The Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and the Catholic Church have all criticised the bill’s “vague language” and expressed concern that it was “a threat to freedom of speech”.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the bill tried “to find a balance between protecting those who suffer the scourge of hate crime and respecting people’s freedom of speech and expression, which is extremely important”.
However, Labour’s James Kelly MSP said the Government had got its approach to the bill “badly wrong”, adding that the stirring up hatred offence “needs to be fully deleted or heavily amended”.
Sturgeon said the bill would be interpreted “in accordance with the European convention on human rights, adding: “Hate crime is a real problem in Scotland.”
Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities (SCoJeC) and the Muslim Council for Scotland both supported the bill.
UK legislation on ‘Online Harms’ is delayed, following the publication of a White Paper, with Lord Puttnam, who chairs the Lords Democracy and Digital Committee, recently saying that it may not come into effect until 2023-24.
“If that is correct, then the opportunity should be taken to introduce such legislation in Scotland far sooner,” said SCoJeC.
“The importance of this has been underlined by a series of reports from the Community Security Trust (CST). The most recent of these reports on matters so extreme that they decided it would be irresponsible to publish it in full.”
On the difference between ‘hate crimes’ and ‘hate incidents’, SCoJeC said: “So much that happens by way of open racism and other hatreds is done in ways that fall short of criminality.
“For example, when a pig’s head was dumped on a woman’s lawn in Aberdeen, pork pies left with a blue pencil note at Dundee Synagogue, and a passenger made the gesture of firing a gun at a pedestrian from a passing car, it is not certain that any offence was committed.
“These would all have been recorded by the police as hate incidents rather than hate crimes but the motivation and effect are the same, and indeed the cumulative effect of such incidents without action being taken can be devastating both for individuals and communities.”