What Is Free Speech & Does It Mean You Can Say Whatever You Want?

By Emma Franck-Gwinnell, Guest Author 8 Aug 2016

Freedom of speech has been called the “lifeblood of democracy”. It means we can hold and express opinions and ideas, and criticise people in positions of power.

But the right to free expression is not unlimited. Here is a short guide to how our freedom of expression is protected in the UK.

A brief history lesson

In 1688, the English Bill of Rights said that debates and proceedings in Parliament should not be questioned outside of Parliament. Essentially, this gave politicians freedom of speech within Parliament. Such a rule did not, however, exist for those outside Parliament.

In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed freedom of expression for those outside of Parliament, too. Article 19 states that anyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and share information and ideas through any media.

We also have the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 10 of which declares:

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 a public authority and regardless of frontiers.

The Convention goes on to explain that freedom of expression comes with responsibilities and can be subject to restrictions – for example to prevent crime, in the interest of national security or to protect the rights of others. So what does this mean in practice?

Freedom of speech does protect…


…Speech which some might find offensive

In one case from 1976, a UK-based publisher purchased the rights to a book – known as The Little Red Schoolbook – that taught children about sex and drugs. Copies of the book were seized by UK authorities as they considered the book to be obscene. The European Court of Human Rights decided that the publisher’s right to freedom of expression was not violated: UK courts were best placed to judge whether the book would corrupt the morals of impressionable children in Britain, so its censorship was justified. However, the Court did say that free expression applies not just to ideas that people like, but also to ideas which offend, shock or disturb.

…Journalists publishing on matters in the public interest

The Sunday Times wanted to publish an article detailing the history and negligence involved in developing the drug Thalidomide which led to disfigurements in many newborns. The Attorney General tried to stop publication of the article (because there was a court case about the drug going on at the same time). In 1989, the European Court of Human Rights decided that prohibiting publication violated the Sunday Times’ right to freedom of expression. The Court said that the Thalidomide disaster was “a matter of undisputed public concern”. The press had a right to keep the public informed and the victims’ families had a right to learn the truth.

But there are limits…


Hate speech is not OK…

Freedom of speech does not prevent states from prohibiting certain types of speech, such as offensive speech that targets specific groups of people – for example those of a particular religion, nationality, race or sexual orientation. In England and Wales, the Public Order Act 1986 makes intentional expression of racial hatred a criminal offence. Other Acts of Parliament are also relevant, including the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 which criminalises inciting hatred on the ground of sexual orientation.

Details of young people in court may not be reported on…

In some circumstances, judges may restrict the media’s ability to report on the involvement of young people in court proceedings. Under section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, in relation to any court proceedings, other than criminal proceedings, a judge may give a direction prohibiting the publication of the name or details which would lead to the identification of a child or young person involved.

In relation to criminal proceedings in any court in England and Wales or Northern Ireland, courts may direct (under section 45 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999) that no matter relating to any person under 18 concerned in the proceedings may be included in any publication if it is likely to lead the public to identify them as a person concerned in the proceedings. These reporting restrictions exist to protect the privacy of vulnerable young people.

And journalists can sometimes be stopped from publishing things where there is no public interest…

In a recent case, a person known as PJS wanted to prevent publication of details of a private sexual encounter. The UK Supreme Court decided to uphold an injuction which forbid the press from publishing the names of those involved. One of the judges, Lord Mance, said “There is no public interest… in publishing kiss-and-tell stories… simply because the persons involved are well-known; and so there is no right to invade privacy by publishing them”. Publication would also have interfered with PJS’s right to privacy and family life which had to be balanced against the press’s right to free expression.

Learn more about the right to free speech with our infographic poster, our key free speech cases and our other speech and protest resources.

All images: Pixabay.com.

About The Author

Emma Franck-Gwinnell Guest Author

Emma Gwinnell is a law student who is especially interested in international law, human trafficking and slavery. She currently leads the Liberty Asia Students Against Slavery network and is part of the RightsInfo volunteer team.

Emma Gwinnell is a law student who is especially interested in international law, human trafficking and slavery. She currently leads the Liberty Asia Students Against Slavery network and is part of the RightsInfo volunteer team.