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The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill introduced by Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf looks to extend the law on ‘hate crime’ covering particular characteristics, including religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity. If the law is passed by Holyrood, it means that words or behaviour considered to be “abusive” and “likely” to stir up hatred would constitute an offence.
However, the controversial legislation has already faced criticism from the Scottish Police Federation, Catholic Church in Scotland and the Law Society of Scotland.
But in a jointly signed letter from 20 individuals and organisations in the world of arts, journalism, literature, comedy, politics and human rights advocacy fear that free expression including writing would be severely restricted.
Among the signatories include comedian Rowan Atkinson, writer Val McDermid and playwright Alan Bissett.
In the letter, the 20 individuals and organisations fear that the stirring up hatred part of the offence could even be applied to “being in possession of materials produced by someone else, where sharing the material could stir up hatred.”
The letter added: “We represent a diverse group of individuals and organisations concerned about the impact on freedom of expression of the proposed Hate Crime and Public Order Bill as currently drafted.
“The unintended consequences of this well-meaning Bill risk stifling freedom of expression.
“As currently worded, the Bill could frustrate rational debate and discussion which has a fundamental role in society including in artistic endeavour.
“The arts play a key part in shaping Scotland’s identity in addition to being a significant economic contributor.
“The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious and others must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish.”
Lisa Clark, project manager at Scottish PEN, which campaigns defends the freedom of writers and their readers, added: “We know that for many writers, the realisation of the right to freedom of expression is put at risk because they live with a fearful awareness – and often, direct experience – of hate crime.
“This Bill proposes much that could help to defend these groups and increase the diversity of creative works we see from writers in protected groups.
“However, we are also keenly aware that some offences proposed in the Bill could induce a climate of self-censorship and suppression of writing that challenges power or subverts societal norms.”
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Fraser Sutherland, Chief Executive of Humanist Society Scotland, said: “The Bill as proposed has behind it some sound intentions, however, it is clear from the broad support to our joint letter that concerns remain about poorly drafted provisions.
“The failure of the Bill to require intent to be proven in court on some offences risks a significant chilling effect on free expression.
“This is why the UN Rabat Plan has six tests on controlling hate speech including that any laws must ensure intent is proven.
“This strikes a sensible balance between protecting individuals from hate crime and protecting freedom of expression and the Bill needs amending to properly achieve this.”
Liam Kerr MSP Scottish Conservative justice spokesman told Express.co.uk that the legislation needed rethinking.
He added: “From artists to lawyers, politicians to people in the street, the feeling is that this draft bill is a threat to free speech – the keystone of democracy.
“This letter is just the latest opposition to a deeply flawed bill, which would criminalise the arts as well as well-intentioned members of the public who pose no threat.”
It comes after a similar piece of legislation known as the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act was introduced in 2012.
This law made it a criminal offence for football fans to discriminate against certain traits such as religion, ethnic identity, class, or region at matches.
However, it was scrapped in 2018 following severe concerns over freedom of speech and claims that it unfairly targeted Scottish football fans.
The Scottish Government have been approached for comment.
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