Free Speech in the UK: An Overview

By: Toby Gould, Editor

To say we have complete free speech in the UK is inaccurate.  While we do have relatively free media, and while we are open to criticise the government, organisations and individuals, there are laws in place which, for better or worse, which place limits on what you can and cannot say.  There is no one, simple law that covers free speech in the UK.  Rather, it is a complicated mix of modern and historic, and, domestic and international laws.

 The European Convention on Human Rights, 1998, is incorporated into our law under the Human Rights Act and guarantees freedom of expression under Article 10[TG1] .  It states that “everyone has a right to freedom of expression”.  However, it then goes on to say “these freedoms… may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties… as are necessary in a democratic society”.  As you can tell from reading this, free speech guaranteed under the European Convention is not absolute.

The United Kingdom has further restrictions of freedom of expression.  For example, it is against the law to incite racial hatred, religious hatred or to ‘breach the peace’.  Moreover, it is against the law to use ‘threatening or abusive’ words which re intended to cause ‘harassment or distress’. 
This is in stark contrast to the United States, who’s constitution guarantees citizens an (almost) absolute right to free speech.  The 1st Amendment states “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the establishment of free speech”.  This means that in the USA you can go out to the streets and say things which in the UK would be illegal.  For example, a person in the United States can shout obscene racist language to people in the streets – and this would be permitted under their rights laid out in the constitution.  If somebody were to do the same in the UK, they could face arrest for ‘inciting racial hatred’ or ‘breaching the peace’. 

There is an ongoing debate over whether free speech should be absolute, somewhat censored and monitored, or fully censored.  In today’s world we see the extremes of allowing free speech (in the USA) but also the extremes of state censorship (in North Korea, for example).  The UK, like most Western Liberal Democracies is somewhere in the middle.  However, it is difficult to understand where we lie on a free speech scale. As mentioned earlier, there is no clear law setting out your rights to free speech.

Free Speech in the UK: An Overview Free Speech in the UK: An Overview Reviewed by Student Voices on 10:38 Rating: 5

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