The Scottish Government has passed its controversial Hate Crime Bill despite concerns being raised over its impact on freedom of speech.
A majority of MSPs backed the legislation which Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said would send a strong message that offences motivated by prejudice “will not be tolerated by society”.
The bill consolidates existing hate crime laws but also establishes a new offence of “stirring up hatred” on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, age, disability and transgender identity.
Opposition politicians warned this could lead to individuals facing criminal charges for expressing controversial opinions.
The Bill cleared its final hurdle at Holyrood on Thursday night with MSPs voting by 82 – 32 in favour, with four abstentions.
Yousaf said: “There are some here who believe that if racism takes place at home that should not be prosecuted.
“My contention is the impact is the same. Regardless of where hatred is intentionally stirred up, the outcome can lead to a person of colour, a disabled person, someone who is gay or lesbian, an older person, or a transwoman, getting beaten up, threatened with violence or raped.
“Do we think they care that hatred was intentionally stirred up or took place at home?”
Yousaf insisted safeguards had been added to the Bill which ensured freedom of speech would be protected.
He continued: “To those who think they may accidentally may fall foul of the law in relation to raising a point – because they believe sex is immutable, or those who proselytise that same-sex marriages are sinful – none of these people fall foul of the stirring up of hatred offence for solely stating their belief, even if they did so in a robust manner.
“Solely stating a belief is not breaching the criminal threshold.”
The government had accepted some changes to the Bill but most amendments were rejected during a marathon debate on Wednesday that delayed the final vote until Thursday evening.
Two amendments aimed at strengthening the protection of free speech were passed unanimously by MSPs.
Labour MSP Johann Lamont had argued that sex should be a protected characteristic in the legislation as women were often the target of hate crime.
But MSPs voted to reject the amendment and the government has established a working group to look at whether a separate criminal offence covering misogynistic abuse should be created.
Lamont, who defied her party to vote against the Bill, said: “As someone committed to equality all of my life, I regret very much I will not be able to vote for this Bill.
“I hope no one in this chamber or anywhere else takes that as meaning that I want anyone in our communities to face hate, disadvantage or abuse. It is not for that reason.
“It is because this Bill does not address a fundamental problem.”
Scottish Conservatives justice spokesman Liam Kerr said: “We strongly opposed the attacks on freedom of speech throughout the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill.
“We voted against because it is a danger to freedom of speech. Criminalising what people say in their own home is too extreme.
“We agree that hate crime should be rooted out but the SNP should not have allowed a fundamental right to be trampled on in the process.”
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