Imagine living in a society where you can be arrested for insulting a religion or where you could be ridiculed and hated for opposing a political party. It’s difficult to believe that the difference between this reality and ours is a small thing called freedom of speech, but are we really as free as we’re made to believe?
Freedom of speech is one of society’s most empowering human rights. It affords us not just the ability to live, but crucially it gives us the right to live and to be heard on any platform. Freedom of expression gives the individual the power to act on behalf of themselves and the press the opportunity to act on behalf of the public interest. As a fundamental human right it allows any citizen the right to share their opinions, and it’s long been protected and upheld in the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights. Around the world, freedom of speech campaigners such as Amnesty International are actively trying to protect and encourage free speech in both the developing and western worlds.
The law states that freedom of speech is a right for all UK and European citizens, but the law is subject to limitations these are known in English law as: libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, hate speech and copyright violation. These laws represents a restriction on what we can say and may impede our right to free speech. They exist to protect the public against malicious-falsehood but they are often open to interpretation, it is the inconsistency and scale of these interpretations that make the topic so controversial.
As citizens of a modern western democracy most of us can email, call, or tweet at the touch of a button and send our opinions into the cyber-abyss. Many don’t think about the consequences of their opinions and say things that they wouldn’t say face-to-face. Celebrities have been offended, MPs have been ridiculed and religions have been undermined, but should we be able to insult people and claim it as a right under freedom of speech?
Reform Section 5 (RS5) is a campaign started by human right’s campaigner Peter Tatchell, and its aim is to change part of the Section Five of the Public Order Act that says you can be arrested for “insulting” someone. The campaign has had high profile support from MPs, celebrities and human rights organisations, including a video by famous British actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson whose videoed reception on RS5 to Parliament went viral on the internet.
In an article for the Huffington Post Tatchell describes why the law should not have the power to decide if a comment is or is not insulting. He says, “If we accept that abuse or insults resulting in likely alarm or distress should be a crime, we risk limiting free and open debate and criminalising dissenting opinions and alternative lifestyles that some very conservative people may find offensive and upsetting. The right to mock, ridicule and satirise ideas, opinions, people and institutions is put in jeopardy. Section 5 can, in theory, be used to criminalise almost any words, actions or images, if someone (anyone) is likely to be alarmed or distressed by them.”
Under the Act people have been arrested for swearing, with some of the offences venturing into the absurd, such as a man being arrested during a protest for calling a horse gay and a pensioner being threatened with legal action for displaying a sign that said: “Religions are Fairy Tales for adults”. The choice of whether to reform the law comes down to the Home Secretary Teresa May, she must decide if removal of the word “insult” will make the polices job harder. Then also weight up how much of the wording of the act limits free speech and if it is it to an extent worthy of amendment. The Government has been looking into changing Section 5 for several years after numerous attempts have been made to reform the Act. No definitive Government response has yet been published; Parliament says: “ it is considering all views and would respond “in due course””. Currently the right to insult each other is illegal in the UK, but where is the line drawn between what is insulting and what is merely banter between friends?
Authoritarian democracies and dictatorships around the world often criticise freedom of speech in the UK, and accuse the West of being hypocritical for purporting a double standard. Most commonly the West has criticised them for imposing severe criminal punishment for artistic expression and opposition to regimes or religious beliefs. Recently Qatar has been under the spotlight for imprisoning poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami for insulting the Qatari Leader Khalifa Al Thani in one of his poems. He has been charged for “inciting to overthrow the regime” and faces lifetime imprisonment. Amnesty International has spoken out for al-Ajami. They say, ‘”It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right.”
However, it is yet to be proven if the UK (a leading voice in the freedom of expression debate) can uphold the standards it expects from the rest of the world. In an article entitled The West’s Edited version of Free Speech, Shashank Joshi discusses this alleged hypocrisy. He says: “ Two years ago, why did we allow the Advertising Standards Authority to ban a satirical picture of a pregnant nun simply because it was “a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics”? Why was France’s Catholic Church granted an injunction against a parody of da Vinci’s The Last Supper in an advertising poster on the basis that it was “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”? Do we wish to live in a society where an arm of the state intervenes in the contents of our soul?”
Often it’s considered the place of Human Rights activists and journalists to hold the government and the powerful to account and expose wrong doing. Equally we are all members of a wider active society who use social media as another platform to express our opinions. This can be in many forms but currently the most popular way to do this is through twitter. However, many people are unaware that using social media also makes them more accountable for their opinions when faced with allegations of libel or defamation. It’s perhaps only this ignorance of the law that leaves people the freedom to comment, so what would it be like if we thought we were being watched?
The Communications Data Bill is a cause for concern for freedom of speech and privacy in the UK, dubbed by critics as the “snoopers bill”. The bill would give telecommunications companies the power to search through everything we send and receive online, see our browsing history, monitor phone-traffic and store that information for twelve months – although this would not include retaining data content unless court ordered. The drafted bill has been under severe scrutiny with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg commenting that he would not pass it in its current form. However the bill has seen support from the Police as the Guardian reports: “Sir Peter Fahy, the Greater Manchester chief constable, said being able to monitor the basic details of who was talking to whom was “absolutely vital” in “proving associations between criminals”.
After the first draft of the bill came under scrutiny from the Communications Data Bill Joint Committee, the Committee concluded that the Home Office had failed to safeguard the misuse of the powers it proposed, and the bill will now need to be entirely rewritten taking into account their changes. However, criticisms have failed to venture too far into the realm of restriction of freedom of speech, Index on Censorship have expressed concern over the bill impeding on our right to freedom of expression. They say, “The UNDR [Universal Declaration of Human Rights] explicitly states that: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence. Monitoring and surveillance of this kind impacts directly and in a chilling manner on freedom of expression, inhibiting and restricting individuals in how they receive, share and impart information and encouraging self-censorship.” The bill represents a need for the UK to tackle modern threats to security such as terrorism, and there is a recognised need for an improvement to help the Police hold cyber-criminals to account. However critics have claimed that if not implemented properly the increase and shift in power between politicians and the police may lead to a police state. Eventually a compromise will have to be made but the issue that faces human rights campaigners remains: Will human rights be eroded if this bill becomes law, and if so is that an acceptable price to pay?
Britain’s press has long been a positive poster boy for freedom of expression, but as the industry is gripped by scandal after scandal is it at risk of restricting it’s already limited freedom of speech? Lord Justice Leveson has now published his findings into the phone hacking scandal, and practices and ethics of the press. The report covers all areas of press ethics and proposes a new regulatory system to replace the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Once part of a self-regulated industry newspapers and magazines now face the possibility of statutory regulation of the press.
Many journalists and newspapers are opposed to statutory control of the press, which they believe would eventually encroach on the press’s right to freedom of speech – especially in a society where everybody is a citizen journalist. In an article entitled Statutory regulation of the press will hurt free speech, The New Statesman has commented about the dangers of statutory regulation of the press in an article entitled Statutory regulation of the press will hurt free speech. They say: “Journalism is one way in which people can exercise their right to free expression, and the danger with statutory regulation is that one can actually create separate levels of access to a right – giving the journalist less of a right to free expression than anyone else. That’s not how rights work. The Spectator has also taken a firm stance against statuary regulation of the press and see it as a first step toward state regulation of the internet. They say: “The more you consider the implications of statutory press regulation, the more unworkable it seems. Can you really regulate the press, but not the internet? And can you really draw a distinction, given that many newspapers will become digital-only in coming years? What happens to a new publication: does it apply for a license? What counts as a new publication?”
On the other hand it is likely that leading industry names such as this would oppose a system that is so different to the self-regulated haven they once enjoyed under the PCC. MP Kenneth Clarke is one of the supporters for statutory regulation of press, in evidence to Lord Justice Leveson the says: “I am not convinced, though, that a statutory underpinning of some kind would amount to state control of the press…This is not my endorsement necessarily for a statutory backing, but simply an observation that it would not be the freedom of expression Armageddon some commentators would have you believe. I am attracted to the idea of contracts, with the possibility (hopefully never used) of civil litigation if the contracts are broken.)
Since the Leveson Inquiry was published there has been an outcry from journalists who fear the worst from Statutory underpinning of the journalistic practices. However, as with many of the questions surrounding freedom of the speech the debate will continue to rage between the morality of restrictions allowed to journalists and the public, and the law which keeps order in a society where everybody has an opinion.