What is freedom of speech and why is it important?

Freedom of speech is part of a wider concept of ‘freedom of expression’ that also includes freedom of the press, the right to petition government, and freedom of political association. It is widely recognised as an essential foundation of liberal, democratic societies.

The term, which is often used interchangeably with the wider umbrella concept, refers to both a political idea and a key principle in both constitutional and international human rights law. As an example of the basis for the latter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948 recognised freedom of expression as a fundamental human right to be universally protected. Article 19 reads that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

Subsequent international agreements have recognised that the freedom is not an unrestricted right. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights, adopted in 1950, was explicit that the right may be limited by law. Article 10 of the convention reads that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression” and that this includes “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers”. But it adds the caveat that restrictions may be imposed for a variety of reasons, including to protect the rights of others:

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has summarised what this has come to mean in the UK. It said that “everyone has the right to free speech within the law” and noted that “unless it is unlawful, speech should usually be allowed”. The committee’s summary continued:

The right extends further than just the right to make speeches. It extends to all forms of expression. Together, freedom of expression and freedom of association cover the right to form societies with lawful aims, even where those aims are not shared with the majority, and the right to peaceful protest.

Free speech is not an absolute right: it is right that there are limitations to ensure that it is not exercised in a way which causes harm to others. We note the law prohibits speech which, for example, incites murder, violence or terrorism; stirs up racial hatred, or hatred to other groups; causes fear of violence, alarm or distress, constitutes harassment or is defamatory or malicious. It does not prohibit speech which others may find upsetting or offensive.

The editors of the Oxford Handbook of Freedom of Speech have noted that although freedom of speech has become “among the most widely agreed upon and celebrated legal and constitutional principles of modern times, it is also the source of enduring and intense disagreement”.

Contemporary challenges and upholding freedom of speech

Different interpretations of what freedom of speech can mean in practice can lead to disagreements about how and to what extent the right can be exercised. In its July 2021 report ‘Free for All? Freedom of Expression in the Digital Age’, the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee noted that there are broadly four different theories of freedom of expression. These were summarised as:

  • Freedom of expression as a value. This holds that more scope for expression is generally preferable to less. It can be used as a measure to judge private and state organisations.
  • Freedom of expression as a fundamental right. This holds that freedom of expression relates to non-interference by the state.
  • Freedom of expression as a positive obligation. This holds that the state should take positive steps to guarantee an individual’s right to freedom of expression from interference by other individuals and organisations. This concept is increasingly being adopted by the European Court of Human Rights, where it is known as ‘the theory of horizontal fundamental rights’.
  • Freedom of expression as competing rights. This holds that each individual’s right to freedom of expression comes into conflict with others’ freedom of expression. Individuals can wield their right against others like a form of violence.

The source for this summary, the lawyer Graham Smith, suggests that disagreements can arise from this “range of different usages and their, to some degree, contradictory underpinnings”.

The Communications and Digital Committee referred to examples of such disagreements in its report. In particular, it noted that debates around freedom of expression in recent years have centred on issues such as “the role of ‘cancel culture’, ‘no platforming’ and free speech at universities”. ‘Cancel culture’ refers to a social climate in which a person or organisation is “likely to be ostracised in response to a perceived wrongdoing”, while ‘no platforming’ refers to the practice of denying someone the opportunity to speak in a political debate or forum.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has referred to these debates and others when arguing for freedom of speech to be upheld. For example, in an interview with the Italian newspaper la Repubblica published on 30 March 2021, he said “I think cancel culture is a huge threat to the life of the church. We need to be able to express truths or to express our views, whether they’re good or bad”. Archbishop Welby elaborated on this point in a new edition of his book ‘Reimagining Britain’, published the following month. He wrote that “cancel culture in the end cancels the oxygen on which it depends to exist; it is a parasite consuming the possibilities of liberty and justice”.

Later in the la Repubblica interview, when questioned about blasphemy and freedom of expression, Archbishop Welby recommended being able to “exercise your freedom of speech, but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech”. He added: “We have to speak freely. I’m much more towards the US end of the spectrum on freedom of speech than I am elsewhere towards the other end. I think we have to be open to hearing things we really dislike”.

The ability to “disagree well” is a theme on which Archbishop Welby has spoken previously. For example, in a debate held in the House of Lords in October 2018, he said: “We must seek a society that is able to voice disagreement freely and to disagree well; where rich and deeply held beliefs and traditions can exist in mutual challenge and respect. Challenge may be tough, but limit it too much and freedom of expression suffers”. He continued: “This is perhaps one of the most important and urgent challenges of our times. Competing narratives, whether religious or secular, test truth and action. Monopoly views, secular or religious, merely enable people to live in bubbles of mutual incomprehension, and even ignorance”.

Archbishop Welby has called for the support of “intermediate institutions” as a means of upholding values such as freedom of speech. He has argued that institutions such as the family, companies, schools, clubs and charities are where “values are developed and refined” and “democracy is founded, and our diversity preserved and nurtured for the common good”. Archbishop Welby has added that such intermediate groups are “where we build social capital, integrate, learn loyalties, practices and values, learn to disagree well and learn to build hope and resilience”.

Commentators such as the activist Billy Bragg have suggested that calls for the end of ‘cancel culture’ themselves can amount to a “demand for a safe space”. He has argued that “liberty needs to be tempered” by both equality and accountability, concluding: “accountability offers us a better foundation on which to build a cohesive society, one where everyone feels that their voice is heard”.

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Cover image by Irina L: lograstudio on Pixabay.