Calls to halt rollout of Scotland's new hate crime law

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A broad coalition of organisations and individuals is calling on the Scottish government to stall implementation of its new Hate Crime and Public Order Act, which comes into force on 1 April.

The new law makes it a crime to 'stir up hatred' against certain groups, but serious concerns have been raised about the impact on free speech and civil liberties.

The Free to Disagree campaign group is urging the Scottish government to "halt and rethink" the controversial new legislation.

It has raised concerns about how new and "poorly understood" 'stirring up hatred' offences will sit alongside existing policy requiring the police to investigate and log 'non-crime hate incidents'.

"There is a real risk of wrongful police investigations at far too low a threshold," it said.

Free to Disagree is a broad umbrella group compromising former Deputy SNP Leader, Jim Sillars, The Christian Institute, The National Secular Society, The Peter Tatchell Foundation and the Adam Smith Institute among others.

The group has also criticised Police Scotland's creation of 'Third Party Reporting Centres' where people can report alleged hate crimes. Among the centres are a sex shop and the headquarters of LGBT Youth Scotland.

Police Scotland has pledged to investigate every hate crime complaint it receives despite saying recently that it would no longer investigate every 'low level' crime.

A spokesperson for Free To Disagree said, "It is clear that there are still serious issues with this legislation, particularly regarding police and public understanding of the new law. If a law is not clearly understood by the people implementing it, and the people who stand to be punished under it, it will fail. 

"Free to Disagree has always warned that the new approach is unworkable and we'd urge the government to think again."

The legislation, which was spearheaded by First Minister Humza Yousaf when he was Justice Secretary, has attracted criticism far and wide, with Twitter owner Elon Musk calling it "an example of why it is so important to preserve freedom of speech". 

Harry Potter author JK Rowling has called the law "ludicrous" and said she will not remove trans-critical posts from her X, formerly Twitter, account before 1 April. 

"If you genuinely imagine I'd delete posts calling a man a man, so as not to be prosecuted under this ludicrous law, stand by for the mother of all April Fools' jokes," she said. 

On Monday, a spokesperson for Downing Street criticised the legislation and said there were no plans to introduce similar measures south of the border.

The spokesperson told the Daily Mail: "I wouldn't want to comment or speculate about individual cases, but the Prime Minister himself believes in free speech.

"For example, he has been very clear on what the definition of a woman is, and that biological sex matters, and he doesn't believe that that should be controversial.

"For the government's part, we would never and are not introducing any similar kind of legislation here in England. And we'd be very aware of the potential for chilling effects on free speech."

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.