Understanding freedom of expression

by Mark Hammond

Published: 16 Jan 2015

Last week’s tragic events in Paris have highlighted again the debate within our society about human rights and the precious and enduring importance of values such as freedom of expression.

The deplorable murders, including of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, the police protecting them, and innocent shoppers at a Jewish supermarket came at the beginning of a year in which we will be celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, one of the building blocks of Britain’s proud record on democracy and human rights.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected by our Human Rights Act, as well as by the longstanding tradition of free speech under British common law.

Satire is another cherished British tradition. From Swift to Spitting Image, we’ve upheld the right to poke fun at powerful individuals and institutions and thereby hold them to account.

Sometimes what is said, drawn or written may shock or offend but freedom of expression is rightly recognised as one of the essential foundations of a democratic society precisely because it enables political, artistic, scientific and commercial development.  This includes the democratic accountability of Government and public bodies.

However, freedom of expression isn’t an absolute right and there are protections in place to ensure it’s not abused. It can rightly be restricted in certain circumstances - for instance where it incites violence against others or promotes hatred based on the colour of someone’s skin or their sexual orientation or their religion.

What goes beyond causing offence and comprises the promotion of hatred is sometimes a fine line and the source of intense debate.  And the changing way this debate is taking place (through social media at breakneck speed and with mass participation) is making life more difficult.

Before you know it there’s a Twitter campaign demanding sanctions or a police investigation against an organisation or an individual who has said something offensive.

What we have to rely on here is the application of the law and to ensure that the legislation is applied consistently and fairly so that everybody and every group in our society sees that they are treated equally.  This is a major challenge for the relevant authorities.  But if we want to uphold the law we must also uphold its consistency.

As always, the law is complex and our role, as an expert body and National Human Rights Institution is to provide guidance and help for those who need to understand it.

That’s why next month we will be producing legal guidance on what the law says about the right to freedom of expression and when and where it can be restricted. We have a role we hope in helping people understand and navigate this very complex area.

In many countries, this human right is under constant threat. The case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who has reportedly been sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison, is the latest example to gain international media attention. The security of journalists and access to independent and impartial media is under constant threat in many countries across the world.

Freedom of expression is something we’ve fought hard to protect and we should never take it for granted.  Beyond the law we will need to think through what responsibilities come with that right and that is a wider debate society needs to consider seriously in the coming months.