Compromise on hate crime doesn't go far enough to protect free speech, say campaigners

(Photo: Unsplash/Kirsten Drew)

The Scottish Government has agreed to amend controversial hate crime legislation after facing a backlash from comedians, lawyers, the police and Christians over its potential harm to free speech. 

Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf told the Scottish Parliament on Thursday that amendments would be made to the bill to remove the term "likely" from the controversial section on "stirring up" hatred. 

The bill will be amended to require proof of intention to stir up hatred in order for an offence to have been committed. 

The original legislation has faced strong criticism from a broad range of groups, including the Catholic Church, Christian Institute, Free Church of Scotland, Humanist Society, Law Society of Scotland, the BBC, Scottish Police Federation and comedians including Rowan Atkinson. 

The Free to Disagree campaign group, of which the Christian Institute is a member, welcomed the changes to the legislation but said they do not go far enough to allay concerns around free speech.

Campaign spokesman Jamie Gillies said that while the amendments were a "step in the right direction", "seismic issues" remained with the bill.

He said the Scottish Government had failed to demonstrate how the proposals would reduce hate-related crimes over existing laws, which he argued provide adequate protection from hate crimes.

He went on to say that good education, support for families and communities, and training for public bodies would be more effective in promoting respect and tolerance than punitive measures.

"There's still too low a threshold for offending, the wording is hopelessly vague, free speech provisions are inadequate, there is no 'dwelling defence', and people outside Scotland could be caught," he said. 

"Withdrawing the 'stirring up' offences wholesale is the only way to resolve these complex issues and ensure that other, vital civil liberties are upheld.

"The fact that the Government hasn't done this means opposition to the bill will continue for months to come. It's a missed opportunity."