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Free speech provisions must be strengthened in Hate Crime Bill, MSPs say

Image credit: Scottish Parliament

Free speech provisions must be strengthened in Hate Crime Bill, MSPs say

The Hate Crime Bill must be amended to strengthen its free speech provisions, Holyrood’s Justice Committee has concluded.

The stage one report said freedom of speech included the “right to offend, shock or disturb” and it was “anxious” to ensure there were no unintended consequences on this freedom.

MSPs have also called for the test of whether behaviour was abusive to be a “higher bar for prosecution” and for the bill to make clear the Crown will be required to show a ‘reasonable person’ would consider it abusive.

And they also said the reasonableness defence – where a person charged with stirring up hatred can show their behaviour was reasonable in the circumstances – needed to be clarified.

Overall, the Justice Committee concluded it could only recommend that the bill proceed through parliament if these amendments were made.

Convener Adam Tomkins said: “We believe that, if amended in line with our unanimous recommendations, this bill should be fit to protect the communities it affords extra protections to without encroaching on the ability of citizens to have robust debates, hold views others find unpalatable and express themselves freely.

“It is a testament to the open-mindedness of all members to have found such consensus on what has undoubtedly been a contentious piece of legislation.”

The controversial bill aims to bring together hate crime legislation, as well as create a new offence of stirring up hatred against protected groups.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has already confirmed some amendments will be brought forward at stage two which will ensure the new offence will only apply when someone intended to stir up hatred.

The committee said its recommendations build on and go further than these changes.

MSPs have also welcomed the working group on misogynistic harassment, chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy, and said it should report within a year.

Noting “sharply contrasting views” about whether sex characteristics should be covered in the bill, the report said: “This is an exceptionally sensitive matter, which Parliament will want to reflect on carefully as the bill is debated further.”

The stage one debate on the bill is expected to take place before Christmas.

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