Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Expression - Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) states:

Freedom of Expression (Article 10)

  • 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
  • 2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

The Human Rights Act 1998, came into force on 2 October 2000, its aim is to give further effect in UK law to the rights contained in Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, but more commonly known as the European Convention on Human Rights.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides the right to freedom of expression and information, subject to certain restrictions that are ‘in accordance with law’ and ‘necessary in a democratic society’. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas.

However, there are limitations to ‘Freedom of Expression’.

Please note, the following are simply some examples of limitations to the concept of ‘Freedom of Expression’:

  • • ‘Super Injunctions’ – preventing the publication of the thing that is in issue and prevent the reporting of the fact that the injunction exists at all. These injunctions have been used by footballers.
  • • Banning people from entry to the United Kingdom, demonstrating clearly one cannot fully express themselves without restrictions from the state. A recent example is Michael Savage, an American radio host, author, activist, and political commentator. The reasons for placing Michael Savage on the list are as follows ‘Considered to be engaging in unacceptable behaviour by seeking to provoke others to serious criminal acts and fostering hatred which might lead to inter-community violence’.
  • • Laws intended to combat anti-social behaviour, terrorism and serious crime are routinely used against legitimate protesters. In recent times there has been an increase in protests and marches known as ‘The May Day Protests’ which are a series of international protests aimed at targeting the global economic crisis including austerity measures and poor working conditions.
  • • Hate speech laws have been extended in a piecemeal way to ban ever-expanding categories of speech. Expressions of hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation is forbidden. An example – Harry Hammond, a street preaching evangelical, was arrested and charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act (1986) because he had displayed to people in Bournemouth a large sign bearing the words "Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord". In April 2002, a magistrate convicted Hammond, fined him £300, and ordered him to pay costs of £395.
  • • Broad powers of stop and search have been used to harass and stifle peaceful protestors. On 19 August 2013, Caroline Lucas MP was arrested at a nonviolent protest against Cuadrilla Resources fracking operations in Sussex.
  • • Protest around parliament has been severely restricted by laws limiting and overly regulating the right to assemble and protest around Parliament. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 imposes tight restrictions on peaceful protest in Parliament Square. An example - Peaceful protestor Maya Evans was convicted in 2005 for reading out the names of UK soldiers killed in the war in Iraq at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.

The following are examples of legal constraints to ‘freedom of expression’ in the United Kingdom:

  • • The Human Rights Act Article 10: Freedom of Expression – under Article 10 everyone has the right of freedom of expression. However, the exercise of these freedoms is limited: “The exercise of these freedoms… may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society…”
  • • Public Order Act 1986 – prohibits certain acts intended or likely to stir up racial hatred including the use of words or behaviour or displays of written material which are threatening, abusive or insulting and intended to stir up racial hatred.
  • • Obscene Publications Act 1959 – makes commercial dealings in obscene items, or possession of them a criminal offence. With or without a prosecution, the items can be seized under a magistrate's warrant and, after a hearing to determine whether they contravene the statute, can be forfeited.
  • • Libel & Slander Laws – seek to prevent defamatory statements of an individual in writing and speech. Jeffrey Archer successfully sued for libel in 1987 over claims in the Daily Star that he had had sex with a prostitute. He was awarded £500,000 in damages.
  • • The Official Secrets Act 1989 – makes the disclosure of confidential material from government sources by employees a criminal offence. There is no public-interest defence, and disclosure of information already in the public domain is still a criminal offence.
  • • The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 – protest without permit within a 1km radius of Parliament. The first conviction under the Act was in December 2005 when Maya Evens was convicted for reading the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians killed in the Iraq War.
  • • Data Protection Act 1884 – places restrictions on communicating personal data with third parties.
  • • Protection of Children Act 1978 – makes it a criminal offence to take, permit to be taken or make; to distribute or show; to have in one's possession with a view to distribution or showing by oneself or others; an indecent photograph or psuedo photograph of a child.
  • • S.43 Telecommunications Act 1984 – makes it an offence to send by a public telecommunications system a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.