The Scottish Conservatives are to table a vote at Holyrood in a bid to bring down the government’s controversial hate crime legislation.
Ministers put forward the Hate Crime bill to tidy up the law and introduce new protections for vulnerable groups.
However, a range of organisations have voiced fears that the current plans could stifle freedom of speech.
MSPs will vote on a Tory motion on Wednesday which urges the government to tear up the bill and begin again.
This is, however, unlikely to pass, with the Greens already denouncing the motion as an attempt to “score cheap political points”.
The Scottish government has said it will “very carefully” consider concerns, but stands behind the “main purpose of the bill – to make clear that crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice will not be tolerated in modern Scotland”.
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Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told the BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland programme: “You can be as controversial or offensive as you want. What you can’t do is be threatening or abusive with the intention or likelihood of stirring up hatred.”
The legislation aims to simplify the law by bringing together multiple existing hate crime provisions into a single bill.
It would also create a new crime of “stirring up hatred”, either “with intention” or where it is a likely consequence of an action.
Open to interpretation
This has drawn criticism that the law could be too vague and open to interpretation, and could threaten the rights of people from campaigners and comedians.
More than 2,000 responses were submitted to a public consultation, with groups including the Faculty of Advocates, the Scottish Police Federation and a collective of leading authors saying it could threaten freedom of speech.
The legislation has not yet got as far as its first formal debate at Holyrood, and opposition parties have already indicated they will push for amendments when it does.
The Scottish Conservatives have put forward a motion stressing that “hate crimes are a blight on society in Scotland”, but adding that “the right to freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy and must never be compromised”.
It concludes that ministers should “accept criticisms, remove its proposed bill and immediately begin work to draft the legislation that is needed to tackle hate crime, while not threatening to make free speech a crime”.
Justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “Every political party agrees that there is a clear need for hate crime laws. However, our support for freedom of speech must also be absolute.
“The Scottish Parliament must take a clear stand that the proposed threat to freedom of speech is unacceptable.”
The motion would not be binding on the government and would need the backing of all opposition parties to pass. It is all but certain to fall, having already been rejected by the Greens.
MSP John Finnie said it was “very disappointing that the Scottish Conservatives have decided to score cheap political points with an attempt to kill the bill stone dead before it has even had a chance to be scrutinised”.
The Scottish Lib Dems meanwhile have hit out against “significant flaws” in the legislation, but say they “remain committed to working with ministers and others to help deliver legislation that is effective”.
In her annual Programme for Government speech, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon indicated that ministers would be pressing ahead with the bill.
However, she said: “I know concerns have been raised. I want to give an assurance that we will listen carefully – freedom of speech and expression is fundamental in any democracy.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has denied claims that the bill was “too vague”.
Mr Yousaf insisted the proposed legislation “does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate” and has pledged to find a way of making it effective while still preserving freedom of speech.
He said: “I do accept that there is a lot of strong feeling and that it is incumbent on government and parliamentarians to try to see where we can improve the bill.
“Walking away from the entire process – scrapping a bill which has a lot of support, particularly amongst those who are the targets of hate – would be the wrong thing to do.”
‘Understanding of victims’
The Scottish Police Federation has warned that the proposals could “force officers to police what people think or feel”.
The body said this would “devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public”.
Other groups such as the Equality Network and the Scottish Council for Jewish Communities have backed the bill.
And Police Scotland has said that “the simplification of hate crime legislation would assist the understanding of victims, society as a whole, and indeed police officers”.