Freedom of expression

Advice and Guidance

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published legal guidance on freedom of expression.

Following the recent tragic deaths in Paris, there has been considerable debate both nationally and internationally about free speech. The new guidance aims to help address ‘muddle and misunderstanding’ around specific areas of Britain’s laws on freedom of expression.

It explains there are legitimate ways the state restrains what we can say but the test for curtailing freedom of expression in law is a stringent one, and much that is offensive is still legal.

Freedom of expression can however be restricted in certain circumstances. For example, where it incites violence against others or promotes hatred based on the colour of someone’s skin or their sexual orientation or their religion.

Former Chief Executive Mark Hammond said:

'The recent tragic events in Paris have again highlighted the importance of freedom of expression in our society. We have a long history of debating free speech in this country and the law recognises its value and importance. Today’s guidance aims to address any muddle and misunderstanding about the law. What goes beyond causing offence and promotes hatred is sometimes a fine line and the source of intense debate. As an expert body and National Human Rights Institution, we hope we can play an important role in helping public bodies to understand and navigate this complex area.'

The new guidance includes the following key points:

  • Freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is also a fundamental right under common law
  • Protection under Article 10 extends to the expression of views that may shock, disturb or offend the deeply-held beliefs of others
  • Any restrictions on freedom of expression must always be clearly set out in law, necessary in a democratic society for a legitimate aim, and proportionate
  • Subject to these conditions, freedom of expression may be limited in certain circumstances, including in order to protect others from violence, hatred and discrimination
  • In particular, freedom of expression does not protect statements that discriminate against or harass, or incite violence or hatred against, other persons and groups, particularly by reference to their race, religious belief, gender or sexual orientation
  • The boundary between the expression of intolerant or offensive views and hate speech is not always an easy one to draw. However, a number of factors are likely to be relevant, including the intention of the person making the statement, the context in which they are making it, the intended audience, and the particular words used
  • Freedom of expression is protected more strongly in some contexts than others. In particular, a wide degree of tolerance is accorded to political speech and debate during election campaigns

Speeches

In a lecture at Canterbury Christ Church University, the Commission’s Chair Onora O’Neill and Chief Executive Mark Hammond argued that freedom of expression is a fundamental right which is essential for democracy, a free media and political, artistic and scientific development.

The speeches are available to download:

  • Commissions Chair - Baroness Onora O’Neill's speech to Canterbury Christ Church University - 03 February 2015 (PDF | Word)
  • Commissions Chief Executive Mark Hammond speech to Canterbury Christ Church University - 03 February 2015 (PDF | Word)

Last updated: 25 May 2016

Further information

If you think you might have been treated unfairly and want further advice, you can contact the Equality Advisory and Support Service.

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