COMEDY at the Edinburgh Fringe could fall foul of new hate crime legislation, the Faculty of Advocates has warned.

It raised concerns the proposed changes could have a "stifling effect" on plays and performances in Scotland, as well as hitting legitimate debate. 

The body of lawyers said those "appearing at what is advertised as the ‘world’s largest performing arts festival’ in Edinburgh risk committing an offence performing a show in Scotland when the same show would not carry criminal sanction in England". 

The Faculty is just the latest group to raise concerns over the new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill. 

If passed, it will create an offence of "stirring up hatred" against a protected group, such as LGBT people, expanding on existing laws protecting racial groups.

Scotland's Catholic bishops previously raised fears the Bible could fall foul of the legislation, while the Scottish Police Federation has warned it could “paralyse freedom of speech” and “devastate” the relationship between the public and the police.

In a submission to Holyrood's Justice Committee, which is examining the legislation, the Faculty of Advocates raised a number of concerns.

It said it supported the principles behind the legislation, but argued "the difficulties which exist with the current text" mean "there is no alternative but to reconsider the draft Bill".

The body, which represents lawyers who have been admitted to practise as advocates in Scottish courts, highlighted the potential impact on the performing arts. 

It said: "If comedy performed, for example, at the Edinburgh Fringe offends the terms of the proposed Bill, the performer, presenter and director associated with that performance would be engaged in potentially criminal activity."

It said plays and theatrical productions can tackle controversial and often highly emotive subjects.

It added: "The Bill as presently drafted appears to the Faculty to have the potential to ‘catch’ a play in which a person with a particular characteristic is portrayed in a positive way, but the nature of the play requires to refer to abusive or insulting material and the result is it stirs up hatred against that group.

"The Faculty considers it to be likely that there are many plays which call for threatening, abusive or insulting material to form part of the performance in some way. 

"Plays are often intended to open debate on various subjects and sometimes deal with sensitive and controversial subjects."

The Faculty said fear of falling foul of the legislation "may have a stifling effect on dramatic plays presented in public, on the basis that performers, directors and presenters otherwise wishing to become involved in them may not do so for fear of committing a criminal offence".

Elsewhere, it said the Bill could "potentially criminalise a number of social media postings made on a daily basis".

It also said the legislation's broad scope could cause “unfounded complaints” leading to the “invasion of privacy and domestic life” and the seizure of telephones and computers. 

Concluding its comments, it said it has "concerns...regarding the potential impact of certain sections of the Bill on freedom of expression and the potential which the Bill, if enacted, would have in terms of a chilling effect on legitimate, if controversial, debate and the performing arts".

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said the "very principles of free speech itself are under threat" and urged the SNP to withdraw the legislation.