A prominent Conservative MSP has warned the Scottish Government that proposed hate crime legislation must not endanger free speech or lead to new offences of ‘stirring up hatred’.
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill aims to modernise, consolidate and extend existing hate crime law across the country, and comes following a Scottish Government consultation on the issue.
However, the majority of those who responded to the consultation were not supportive of hate crime laws in the first place, arguing that they ob- struct free speech and create a hierarchy of victims.
Murdo Fraser, MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife, has agreed with those findings, saying that the new Bill may be particularly problematic as it could lead to new offences of ‘stirring up hatred’.
Writing in The Scotsman, Mr Fraser points out that these measures currently apply only to racial hatred. However, he warns that the plan is to extend this to apply to all groups defined by reference to age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics.
Acknowledging that such a move could raise all sorts of issues, Mr Fraser writes: ‘For example, could a Christian pastor or an Islamic scholar expressing disapproval of same-sex relationships be found guilty [under this proposed legislation] of stirring up hatred towards the LGBT community?’
His comments come only months after high-profile Christian evangelist Franklin Graham had his booking for an event in Glasgow cancelled following concerns from the council and protests over his views on sexuality.
While Mr Fraser acknowledges and welcomes the fact that the Bill does include provisions to protect free speech in certain circumstances, including discussions or criticisms of religions, and of sexual conduct or practices, he insists that politicians will need to ‘carefully consider’ whether they go far enough, and that such provisions will be open to interpretation by the police.
‘It is precisely because, in a free society, we need to protect people’s right to hold unpopular opinions and express them, and to say the wrong things, that legislation on hate crime needs to be fair and balanced,’ he writes.
‘The current national crisis should not prevent us from having the opportunity to scrutinise these proposals thoroughly.’
Picture: Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser. (Andrew Milligan/PA).