THE Hate Crime Bill aims to create a careful balance that supports and protects our shared freedoms. Over the past week, I have read in detail the concerns raised about the implications of the Bill – particularly around freedom of speech.

Free speech is a fundamental part of Scottish democracy. Protecting the rights of individuals and groups to voice their views on the issues that matter to them is central to this Government’s aim of creating an open, diverse and progressive country.

At its heart, this is what the Bill seeks to protect. In order for everyone in Scotland to enjoy equal freedoms, we must protect the parts of our society that are vulnerable from those who would seek to abuse those freedoms.

It is important because hate crime has real life consequences – to be attacked or targeted simply because of who you are is a frightening experience. I know this from personal experience.

The latest reports from Police Scotland show that 6736 hate crimes were recorded in 2017-2018.

Like many, I have been on the sharp end of prejudice and bigoted abuse and know too well the hugely damaging impact it can have, not just on the individual but on families and the wider community.

There is a common misconception that hate crime is just hate speech or hurt feelings. This is wrong – victims of hate crime face both mental and physical harm. Abuse and prejudice can have long lasting effects on victims and many will live with their scars, emotional or physical, for the rest of their lives.

The consequences of hate crime are harsh; taking away from its victims the fundamental freedoms and rights that we should all enjoy.

So in response to the concerns that have been raised, let me set out categorically that the Bill will not prevent people expressing controversial, challenging or even offensive views.

It will not prevent people having or expressing religious views or materials and it will not stifle journalists’ freedoms.

READ MORE: Hate crime bill is open to abuse by malicious individuals

What it does do is bring greater clarity, transparency and consistency to Scotland’s hate crime legislation.

As well as updating and consolidating existing hate crime laws, the Bill provides for stirring up of hatred offences. For these offences a person’s actions or communications must either be threatening or abusive as well as being intended to, or likely to, stir up hatred. There is also the defence that a person’s behaviour was reasonable in the circumstances. Taken together, this means there is a high bar before conduct is criminalised.

These offences would apply to age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics.

There have been offences of stirring up racial hatred as part of Scots law since the 1960s. Indeed, England, Wales and Northern Ireland all have laws in place criminalising stirring up hatred in relation to religion and sexual orientation while Northern Ireland’s law also covers disabilities.

I firmly believe the Bill strikes the right balance between respecting freedom of speech and tackling hate speech. The Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way, people will still be able to express controversial, challenging or even offensive views as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended to stir up hatred or likely to stir up hatred.

The Bill has received support in principle from a number of organisations including the Equality Network, Victim Support Scotland, Engender, Stonewall Scotland and the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities.

I will continue to engage with stakeholders and opposition to find common ground where possible. This is because we all have a responsibility to challenge prejudice to ensure Scotland is an inclusive and respectful society.

This Bill will play an important part in realising this and will send a strong message to victims, perpetrators, and society that offences motivated by prejudice will not be tolerated.

We are living through extremely challenging times – but it is important that victims and witnesses continue to report hate crime to the police or through a third party reporting centre.