HOLYROOD has announced a last-minute consultation on addressing a fundamental issue with the Scottish Government’s controversial Hate Crime Bill.

Parliament’s justice committee has asked for the public’s views on how the Bill can best protect some forms of speech while simultaneously criminalising others. 

The deadline for the 96-hour exercise is Monday at 10am.

It follows the Government offering four possible solutions to the conundrum, without expressing a preference for any one in particular.

In a letter to the committee, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf proposed four potential amendments to the Bill in a bid to protect freedom of expression, by clarifying the threshold for"stirring up hatred" offences.

All would protect “discussion or criticism” of matters relating to age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and “variations in sex characteristics”.

Some options would also offer further protections for expressing views on race and religion.

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However speech or material that was “threatening or abusive” would still be criminalised by the Bill.

The Bill has already cleared its first and second stages at Holyrood, so the amendments would have to be inserted by the parliament as a whole at the Bill’s third and final stage.

Ministers have said they want the legislation passed in the coming weeks.

The move follows months of wrangling over the Bill, which has been been criticised by the religious organisations, charities, academics, legal and policing bodies. 

Opponents say it restricts freedom on speech, including in the home.

The Justice Committee demanded a series of changes to it after a receiving a record 2000 written submissions. 

The original Bill would have updated the characteristics protected in law from hate crimes with new offences for behaviour “likely” to stir up hatred, whether done intentionally or not.

Mr Yousaf later agreed to change that so that offences were based on intent. 

However the legislation remains controversial, as it proposed to criminalise hateful speech or behaviour which takes place in the home, not just in public.

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How to protect some forms of expression while also criminalising others on the subject has proved one of the most vexed aspects of the legislation.

Opposition MSPs proposed amendments earlier this month.

But Mr Yousaf persuaded them to back off pending the Government bringing forward its own.

In his letter, Mr Yosuaf said it was clear there was “a range of views held on the appropriate approach which is not surprising given the sensitivities and complexities of this area”. 

He said: “Freedom of expression provision can... 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. 

“None of these options are Scottish Government preferred options; instead they set out how Parliament could decide to include freedom of expression provision.”

The format of each of the proposed amendments is largely the same, and they are intended to make clear that for the purposes of stirring up hatred offences, certain speech and behaviour is excluded.

For example, Mr Yousaf, said: "Discussing on social media and offering criticism towards, say, policies associated with transgender identity or stating the fact that one believes sex to be immutable, could not be regarded, of itself, as behaviour which is threatening or abusive towards trans people.

"However, if, for example, the criticism included comments a reasonable person would consider abusive about trans people, or threatened them with violence, it could still amount to behaviour that is threatening or abusive.

"It is important to reiterate, the new Stirring Up Offences can only be committed if an individual intended to stir up hatred, and this can be proven beyond reasonable doubt in a Court."

The first option would cover all the protected characteristics in the Bill, with extra provisions protecting "expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult towards" religions and religious beliefs.

The second would do the same, but omit protection for discussion or criticism of "race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origins".

The third would be the same as two, minus the extra provision for religion, while the fourth would omit the extra provisions for race and religion.

Launching its consultation, the justice committee said the "limited call for views" welcomed submissions of up to 6 sides of A4 in any language.

It said: "The Committee welcomes your views specifically on the draft amendments proposed by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice on the issue of freedom of expression.

"The Committee is not exploring any other issue associated with this Bill in this limited call for views."