What is meant by free speech?

What is meant by free speech?

Most people would agree that in an open, democratic society, free speech is essential. The press, the broadcast media and political opponents must have the freedom to criticise those in power. It is one of the ways that people in such a society hold their leaders accountable and express their individuality as free citizens.

So no matter how vulgar, profane or distasteful a particular form of expression may be, a person has the right to advance it (and others have the right to express their reaction to it). Organisations such as Liberty are vigilant about defending that principle. They will sometimes side with people who take very unpopular views — although in defence of the right to hold and express such views rather than in defence of the views themselves.

Legal basis for free speech in the UK

The UK is known around the world for its respect for and tolerance of free speech. Although free speech has long been recognised as a common law right in Britain, it also has a statutory basis in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the “Convention”), which has been incorporated into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

In fact, Article 10 of the Convention goes beyond free “speech” and guarantees freedom of “expression,” which includes not only the spoken word, but written material, images and other published or broadcast material.

When, however, you begin to consider the possible range of expression — including, say, hate speech that incites violence — it becomes apparent that even a tolerant society has to put some limits on freedom of expression. Therefore, much of the law relating to free speech is concerned with trying to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the use (or abuse) of that freedom in a way that harms society.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights itself recognises the need for some limits on free expression. It provides, however, that limits can only be imposed in order to achieve certain specified aims, and only insofar as is necessary to achieve those aims. The Convention lists several permitted reasons for limiting free speech, including national security, the protection of health or morals, and protection of peoples’ rights and reputations.

Here are some examples of areas where free speech has (controversially in some cases) been limited in the UK:

Protests near the Houses of Parliament

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 includes a provision banning unauthorised protests (including peaceful protests) near Parliament. This requires demonstrators planning demonstrations in the area to give notice to the police. If the notice complies with the legislation, the police are required to authorise the demonstration, but they may impose conditions on it.

The case of Brian Haw, who had staged a solo, long-term protest against government policy regarding Iraq, has led many to conclude that with that Act the government had gone too far in attempting to suppress free speech. Mr Haw was arrested for staging his protest, and he challenged the application of the Act in the courts — on the grounds that he had begun his protest before the Act came into force. He was successful in making that argument in the High Court, but it was overturned on appeal. He was ultimately given permission to continue his protest — on terms — but was later arrested again for breach of those terms.

The Haw episode continues to be of concern to many civil rights advocates, and it remains to be seen whether the new coalition government formed in 2010 will seek to change the law relating to protests near Parliament.

Defamation and invasion of privacy

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights expressly provides that the right to freedom of expression is qualified by such restrictions as are necessary “for the protection of the reputation and rights of others.” That means that the law does not guarantee the right to publish defamatory statements that injure others’ reputations.

In addition, the right to free expression does not protect speakers or publishers who compromise someone’s privacy by misusing or disseminating their private information (by publishing it in a newspaper, for example) where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy .

Getting help and more information

You can find out more about the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 on the Ministry of Justice website. The civil rights organisation Liberty also has news and commentary relating to free speech on its website.

If you believe that your right to free speech has been impinged, you may want to consult a solicitor to find out what your remedies are.

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