John Cleese, the comedy genius behind Monty Python and Fawlty Towers has spoken out over a "disastrous" attack on free speech during a debate on Scotland's hate crime bill.

He spoke out in an online debate, hosted by the Academy of Ideas, after being asked what restrictions his profession could face under the bill when some of his most well-known work has already been labelled “hateful”.

Justice secretary Humza Yousaf indicated last week that he was watering down his controversial hate crime bill after admitting it could harm "entirely legitimate" freedom of speech.

He changed a wide-ranging clause that could have left anyone guilty of "stirring up" hatred liable to seven year jail terms.

The provision had prompted strong opposition from bodies including the Law Society of Scotland, Faculty of Advocates, and the Scottish Police Federation, as well as a list of artists and comedians.

READ MORE: SNP announce Hate Crime Bill climbdown after free speech row

Critics were worried the law would be so broad that anyone could claim to take offence at virtually anything - and cops would have to act.

Mr Yousaf said he would change the Bill so a crime would only be committed if there was "intent" to stir up hatred against minority groups based on characteristics of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex.

HeraldScotland: John Cleese

In August, a list of cultural figures including Rowan Atkinson, author Val McDermid, and actor Elaine C Smith penned an open letter highlighting their concerns about its potential “significant chilling effect on free expression”.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said that Mr Yousaf's move was a step in the right direction, but was by no means 'problem solved' for the Scottish Government. Other organisations have also said more changes were needed.

And the concerns arose again yesterday in the online debate after event host Dr Simon Knight said: “What kind of fetter will it place on the creative process if you have to start thinking things through three or four times before you say them?”

Mr Cleese responded: “It’s disastrous to the creative process because the creative process is a matter of spontaneity. If you’re going to come up with something that’s really interesting it’s going to come out of your unconscious and if you’re having to edit everything you say before you say it then nothing is going to happen creatively and also things that are rather lovely and funny in ordinary conversation they’re not going to happen either.”

He added: “There is a whole form of over-sensitivity and I think some of it is because people who are trying to feel that they are very good people almost sit around waiting to be offended. It’s actually very silly.

“You simply cannot legislate for all these different kinds of attitudes. We’ve got to take seriously the fact that people have got to become a little more stoical and a little less easily upset because we don’t want to run society according to the sensitivities of the people who are most easily upset”.

Asked about some of the more controversial characters in his comedy sketch Cleese added: “There’s two ways of attacking somebody with humour. One is a sort of frontal attack – calling him silly or stupid or whatever – and the other is to put words in their mouth that you want to discredit and make clear that the person saying those words is not someone to be taken seriously”.

The debate also featured a contribution from actor Laurence Fox. He described the Hate Crime Bill as “symbolic legislation”, and added: “To what purpose would you introduce this legislation other than to please people?”

The actor turned free speech activist added that “creativity is a casualty” of the bill, which represents “an absolute assault on our language and the way that we communicate”.

“If you create subjectivity in a crime you are already making a very difficult situation a hundred times more difficult. I ultimately believe that freedom of speech is the best way forward, equality is the best way forward”.

Former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars, a supporter of the Free to Disagree campaign which is leading opposition to the Scottish Bill, also spoke out.

Mr Sillars argued that “western civilisation is having a nervous breakdown over thought and speech” and said: “People are chasing JK Rowling for example. Would she be done under this legislation? Chances are someone would make a complaint?”

He added: “You make progress in society by having free debate, discussion taking on prejudiced discussion and knocking it down. The legislation will fail whereas debate, discussion and progress in society will in fact succeed. The fundamental error they have made with this legislation is the idea that they can determine how we think and what words we say.

“The state is telling us: ‘only think the thoughts that we define and only speak the words that we allow’. That’s a dead society.”

Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies commented: “The anxiety of much-loved comics like John Cleese shows just how problematic the ‘stirring up’ proposals are. Eroding artistic freedom through well-meaning but badly-drafted hate crime laws would greatly diminish Scottish culture and discourage comedians from pursuing their careers in Scotland in the future. The remaining problems with the Hate Crime Bill must be addressed by MSPs urgently if we are to avoid these negative outcomes.”

Mr Yousaf said last week there were a number of "protections" built in to the existing Bill but admitted: "Having heard the views expressed both in this Parliament and elsewhere, I recognise that, even with the protections I have just outlined, there is a real risk that if the offences don’t require intent to stir up hatred, there could be a perception and indeed uncertainty that the operation of this aspect of the offences may be used to prosecute what are entirely legitimate acts of expression.

"This in itself might lead to an element of self-censorship. This is not the aim of the legislation.

"The Bill does not seek to stifle robust debate, public discourse or artistic freedoms.

"Instead, the Bill seeks to offer greater protection to those who suffer from this particularly damaging type of offending behaviour while respecting freedom of expression."