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Rights groups push back against Scotland’s proposed “hate speech” law

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London-based Index on Censorship is urging members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) to oppose the country’s proposed new legislation on hate crimes.

A letter signed by the freedom of expression promoting group’s chief executive, and a number of other activists, journalists, editors and former politicians, is specifically calling on MSPs from all parties to oppose adoption of Part 2 of the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill as contentious.

This part of the law seeks to introduce new offenses related to stirring up hatred – but, the letter’s signatories are warning that the effect this could produce would undermine freedom of expression in Scotland.

The letter adds that a number of legal experts and civil liberties groups have been warning since the bill was first unveiled last year that the way it defines these new offenses means it could “catch legitimate debate on a range of issues.”

The main problem with this part of the law is vague wording and absence of proper free speech protections – a combination that could produce legal pressure on free expression on things like religion and transgender rights in the media, the arts, and the public square, the letter cautions.

The proposed bill came under so much criticism that the Scottish government, which tabled it, made some changes to it, limiting offending to “intent” and saying that it would improve clauses concerning free speech around religion and transgenderism. But these free speech amendments eventually got scrapped by the parliament’s Justice Committee, who said they would seek a different, “catch all” solution to the problem.

Index on Censorship says that this is what “undermined the whole process of scrutiny to date,” as separate clauses to protect speech on such controversial issues like religion, transgender identity and sexual orientation are vitally important in order to allow freedom of expression.

The signatories of the letter don’t believe that the “catch all” clause that would cover these, and a number of other issues, like age and disability, will be produced in time before the final debate ahead of the bill’s adoption.

“We strongly believe that producing workable provisions on the stirring up of hatred in this parliament is now entirely impracticable. These provisions could impact upon the most precious liberties in any democratic society: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and religion. They must be handled with the utmost care,” the letter reads, urging MSPs to oppose Part 2 of the bill.

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