Options for amending the Scottish Government's Hate Crime Bill to oinclude a statutory defence relating to freedom of expression have been published by Holyrood's Justice Committee as it issues a short timescale call for views.
The options have been proposed by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, who has been working with the committee to try and reach agreement on key provisions of the bill, which has caused major controversy during its parliamentary passage.
With the bill already about to go to its final Holyrood stage, those with an interest have only until 10am this coming Monday, 22 February, to have their say. The committee has emphasised that due to the time required to process and analyse evidence, no late submissions will be accepted. The consultation is limited to this particular issue.
The format of each option is largely the same. Each provision makes clear that for the purposes of the stirring up hatred offences, certain behaviour or certain material is not to be taken to meet the thresholds of being threatening, abusive or, in the case of race, insulting, solely on the basis that such behaviour or material involves or includes certain types of expression. The provision then goes on to explain what those types of expression are.
Option 1 includes provision applying to all characteristics in the bill, with additional provision in respect of religion, relating to types of expression that are not necessarily merely discussion or criticism.
Option 2 has the same effect as option 1, except that no provision for race is included.
Option 3 has the same effect as option 1, except that no additional provision for religion is included.
Option 4 has the same effect as option 1, except that no provision for race is included and no additional provision for religion is included.
In his letter to the committee setting out the options, Mr Yousaf states that none of the options are Scottish Government preferred; "instead they set out how Parliament could decide to include freedom of expression provision".
He explains: "It is clear there is a range of views held on the appropriate approach, which is not surprising given the sensitivities and complexities of this area.
"The need for freedom of expression provision to cast light on the operation of the stirring up hatred offences to provide necessary reassurance and improved clarity, has been a central theme of the scrutiny of the bill by the committee. Freedom of expression provision can also reinforce the boundaries of the criminal law by protecting the right to express views that may be distasteful or offensive to many, but nonetheless are not and should not be the business of the criminal law.
"Ensuring that stakeholders can offer views to inform the decisions to be made by Parliament on freedom of expression provision is critical. That is why I consider it is appropriate to offer a range of options for Parliament to seek views on from stakeholders in this letter."
The letter gives some illustrative examples of how the provisions might work.
Click here to view the call for evidence, to which the letter and options are annexed.