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Isn’t Freedom of Speech Just Saying Whatever you Want?

We too often see unpleasant and untrue things said about marginalised communities, things often verging on incitements to hate or commit acts of hate. The common defence for these statements is “freedom of speech”, which is often interpreted as “I can say whatever I want and you can’t do anything about it”.

While it is important to allow frank exchanges of views and opinions, it is important to understand what is really meant by freedom of speech. In the UK, we are protected by the Human Rights Act, which adheres to Article 10 of the European Convention. There are two parts to this; of which the first guarantees freedom of expression without interference from the state whilst the second says that this freedom is not unrestricted and carries with it “duties and responsibilities”.

When looking at the first part of Article 10 it is important to note that speech is only protected from interference by the state.

This means that although people can say whatever they want (within the limits of the second part of Article 10), other people are free to both disagree and refuse to provide a venue or method for someone to espouse opinions that they disagree with. This is why, in theory, websites like twitter or Facebook are allowed to remove or restrict access to opinions they deem offensive and why institutions like universities can refuse to host any speakers or debates they choose to (sometimes known as no-platforming).

This second part of Article 10, which details the restrictions to speech, is also commonly misunderstood or ignored altogether. Reasons speech can be restricted include the following:

  • 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
  • For maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

UK law straddles a tricky line between maintaining freedom of expression whilst banning such things as hate speech. This is difficult as hate speech can sometimes be a subjective issue, but “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace” is prohibited.

Unfortunately, there are those who believe such threatening and inciteful behaviour is part of their right to free speech. There are complaints and protests from those who say their rights are being infringed, when in fact it is simply the second part of their right to free speech that is being enforced upon them, which they have chosen to ignore. The two parts cannot be separated. If what someone says is deemed to be hate speech, there are consequences and repercussions.

People can say whatever you want, however they will be held responsible for those words.


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