The draft law prompted criticism for being “too vague” and threatening free speech. “It could see people prosecuted for offences that they did not know they committed”, the EAUK warns.
Last April, the Scottish Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, announced that the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill was going to be discussed at the Parliament for a future approval.
The draft law “seeks to modernise, consolidate and extend existing hate crime law ensuring it is fit for the 21st century” and “simplify and clarify the law by bringing together the various existing hate crime laws into a single piece of legislation”, the government said.
The current legislation already considers “stirring up hatred against someone on the grounds of race” an offence. If passed by Parliament, the Bill “would extend that to include age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and trans identity”.
Originally, the draft law said people could be prosecuted for stirring up hatred even if they did not intend to. Unlike similar legislation for England and Wales, the Scottish draft law does not contain specific free speech clauses.
Last August, 24 actors and writers, including actor Rowan Atkinson, wrote an open letter, stating that “the unintended consequences of this well meaning Bill risk stifling freedom of expression, and the ability to articulate or criticise religious and other beliefs”.
Among others who publicly criticised the draft law was well-known British comedian John Cleese, who said the Scottish Government’s hate crime measure would have a “disastrous” effect on free speech.
Due to the backlash received, the Bill was revised in September to ensure that only people who intended to stir up hatred will be prosecuted.
However, opposition parties, organisations and individuals, continued to show their concern about the impact of the draft law on freedom of expression, arguing that the definition of “stirring up hatred was too vague and open to interpretation”.
Since then, the measure has prompted 2,000 submissions from religious groups, lawyers, artists, journalists and the Scottish Police Federation.
During the latest meeting of Holyrood's justice committee this Tuesday, the government pledged to remove a section concerning offences committed during a public performance or play, and to insert further protections for freedom of religious expression.
“Mere expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule and insult are not on their own criminal behaviour. I'm committed to work with parliament to ensure hate crime law is effective, while protecting freedom of expression”, Yousaf told MSPs.
Nevertheless, opposition parties pointed out that “the government has miles more to shift before the Bill becomes law”, and called for a “major overhaul of the proposals”.
The Holyrood's justice committee meeting marks the end of the Stage One evidence sessions, with a report expected by December 18.
Members of the Scottish Parliament will then vote on whether the draft law should proceed to stages two and three for further scrutiny, amendments and ultimately approval or refusal for the proposed legislation becoming law.
Kieran Turner, charity’s public policy officer of the Evangelical Alliance of the UK (EAUK) in Scotland, participated in the justice committee on the Hate Crime Bill virtual meeting. He spoke about the concerns around religious freedom and the unintended consequences of the draft law.
“The proposal was incompatible with key principles of human rights and could see people prosecuted for offences that they did not know they committed. Our major concern has always been that people would unintentionally get caught by this”, he said.
While the proposed amendments brought forward by the government have been welcomed by the EAUK, Turner told the committee that they are not a “magic bullet”.
Turner also highlighted “the need for clarity in what the Bill is trying to catch and what it is not trying to catch, as well as the potential threat posed by the bill’s proposals around inflammatory materials and the lack of a ‘dwelling place defence’”.
According to Ciarán Kelly, Deputy Director of The Christian Institute, “there may not even be a prosecution never mind a conviction, but it risks creating a chilling effect on free speech, something that the ‘stirring up hatred’ offences would exacerbate”.
“Would it be abusive and hateful to quote the Bible’s teaching on marriage, gender or sexual ethics? Some groups would say yes. There is a real risk of malicious reports from activists who wish to stop Christians expressing their beliefs”, he added.