The Society of Editors has added its name to calls for a new Hate Crime Bill in Scotland to be delayed until after the election for the Scottish Parliament later this year.
An open letter signed by several free speech organisations and individuals warns the prospect of workable safeguards being produced before the current Parliament stops sitting next month are “entirely impracticable”.
Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf has announced plans to introduce a ‘catch-all’ free speech clause to the bill after he had previously withdrawn amendments to the legislation that had been aimed at providing such safeguards.
But the open letter raises concerns that distinct provisions to protect expression in areas like religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity will now be lost.
The letter states: “The idea that a workable ‘catch-all’ provision covering these topics, as well as the characteristics of age, disability, and variations of sex characteristics, can be agreed upon by the government and other parties before final, stage three proceedings take place is, frankly, untenable.
“Manufacturing such a clause over the next few weeks, behind closed doors, will also necessarily preclude the views of Parliament, stakeholders and the public from being taken into account.
“We strongly believe that producing workable provisions on the stirring up of hatred in this Parliament is now entirely impracticable.”
Other signatories to the letter include Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of the Index on Censorship, Emma Webb, associate fellow with Civitas, Dr Stuart Waiton, sociologist at Abertay University and Trina Budge, director for Women Scot, civil liberties campaigner Peter Tatchell and former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars.
Jamie Gillies of the Free to Disagree campaign, another signatory, said: “It would be prudent for MSPs to defer scrutiny of the stirring up hatred offences until after the May election.
“New proposals could be brought forward and discussed over time, with renewed input from a wide range of stakeholders.”
The SoE has previously spoken of its fears for freedom of speech and the effect on the media both in Scotland and for the rest of the UK if the bill goes ahead as outlined.
Ian Murray, executive director for the SoE, said: “While the Society supports attempts to protect people from prejudice, it is essential that fundamental principles of freedom of expression and legitimate discussion are not lost amid attempts in Scotland to protect the vulnerable.
“This important piece of legislation must not be rushed through to meet a deadline before the Holyrood elections take place in May.”