Hate crime law which could see people criminalised for things said in their own homes is on the verge of coming a step closer in Scotland, with hopes expressed by the Law Commission that England and Wales will follow suit.
MSPs will vote on whether or not to proceed with the controversial Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill in December. The proposed legislation has united churches, secular groups, comedians and the police in opposition to all or parts of it.
Scottish Christians have been among those voicing strong opposition to the Holyrood Bill. In late October the Free Church of Scotland declared that it would ‘have a chilling effect on free speech … It is too easy for someone to fall foul of the legislation simply by disagreeing with someone else’s opinion.’
An unprecedented 2,000 submissions were made regarding the Bill. It would potentially see people criminalised for discussions that happen in their own homes. QCs Anthony Hudson, Kevin Drummond and Lord Menzies Campbell have warned that the Bill ‘directly interferes with freedom of expression’.
Humza Yousaf, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, agreed in September to raise the threshold of the ‘stirring up’ offences from behaviour ‘likely to stir up hatred’, to behaviour ‘intended to stir up hatred’, after widespread opposition. However, Mr Drummond QC expressed his concern that intent is still impossible to determine and is open to exploitation. ‘Anyone unfortunate enough to be charged with a hate crime resulting from a domestic conversation will not know until a jury returns its verdict whether the necessary intent is found to have been present,’ he argued.
The Scottish Police Federation suggested the Bill would seriously damage the relationship between the police and the public.
A Free Church submission stated: ‘[Those preaching] will have to take care as to what they say each week, perhaps consulting their lawyers before speaking on controversial ethical issues in society.’
Meanwhile, in England and Wales, the Law Commission is suggesting similar changes. There is currently a ‘dwelling defence’ in law which protects conversations in the home from police intervention, but the Law Commission believes this should change so that private conversations in the home about controversial issues such as same-sex marriage or transgender ideology could result in prosecution.
The Christian Institute’s Deputy Director for Communications, Ciarán Kelly, commented: ‘The Scottish Government has drawn criticism from all corners for its sinister hate crime legislation, but the Law Commission for England and Wales appears to have paid no notice.
‘Restricting free speech, and policing ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ views, sows division and resentment. The government would do well to ignore this report.’