Free speech: An absolute

It should be clear to most that free speech is an absolute: you either have it or you do not – there is no grey zone. Free speech is not the freedom to say what is not forbidden. Here in the UK we claim to have free speech. Here we can express any opinion we want! We just have to abide by the Public Order Act, which since 1986 has made it an offence for a person to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress. We also need to be aware that in 2006 the Racial and Religious Hatred Act was introduced to restrict us from saying anything that could stir up racial or religious hatred. We could get 7 years in prison for breaking that one. And if we do not want to be in violation of The Terrorism Act, we should keep quiet about anything that could be interpreted as glorifying terrorism. One other thing to bear in mind: since 2008 the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act adds sexual orientation to the list of things we have to be careful not to offend. Oh, and The Communications Act criminalises the sending of electronic messages that are indecent, menacing or obscene. But at least if you live in Scotland, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act protects you from being exposed to threatening chanting while you are enjoying the game.

So there are actually a few restrictions on what we can say. And the list of non-approved things seems to be growing. Evidently the restrictions on free speech goes far beyond simple prevention of incitement to criminal behaviour. Thinking back on recent headlines, where one man was arrested for wearing a t-shirt, and another was arrested for asking a Muslim woman about the Brussels terror attacks, one doesn’t have to be a law scholar to know that freedom of expression does not exist in the UK. The European Convention on Human Rights admits as much in article 10, where freedom of expression is defined to be subject to the following caveat: ‘The exercise of these freedoms may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society’. But herein lies the whole argument: Freedom of expression is not subject to limits, then it’s not freedom of expression. The Constitutional law of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics claimed that ‘In accordance with the interests of the people and in order to strengthen and develop the socialist system, citizens of the USSR are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly, meetings, street processions and demonstrations.’ That was clearly not the case. Then as now, paying lip-service to free speech is not free speech. Freedom of speech is an absolute. And we do not have it.

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