17 years ago, the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 10: Right to freedom of expression

The Human Rights Act protects your right to freedom  of expression.

This right protects our freedom of expression, including holding opinions and receiving/sharing information and ideas. This means that we have the right to express our views through published articles, books, television, radio, artwork, social media, on the internet, and in our actions, eg public protest. Expression includes political expression, artistic expression and commercial expression. 

Freedom of expression ultimately is about being able to hold opinions and express them freely without government interference. Free press is therefore really important to freedom of expression, which is why for example the right protects journalists from revealing their sources. 

This right also comes with specific responsibilities - although you have freedom of expression, you have a duty to respect other people's rights. 

This right protects unpopular, provocative and contentious expression, including opinions which might shock others. This right can be restricted, however, by a public authority - as long as the restriction is: 

  • lawful
  • for a legitimate aim, eg for national security or public safety, to protect the rights of others, or maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary etc
  • necessary and proportionate (eg the least restrictive option)  

In real life: Right to freedom of expression 

Freedom of expression can be limited to protect the rights of others 

Mark put a poster up in the window of his flat, showing a picture of the Twin Towers on fire, a caption reading "Islam out of Britain - Protect the British People" and a symbol of the crescent and star in a prohibition sign. 

Mark was charged with the aggravated offence of displaying a writing/sign that was threatening, abusive or insulting, and that showed hostility towards a racial or religious group. Mark was convicted, and so he appealed to the High Court. He argued that he had the right to freedom of expression, which includes speech that may be provocative and contentious. The Court ruled however that freedom of expression can be limited to protect the rights of others, and in this case Mark's poster was a "public expression of attack on all Muslims in the United Kingdom". Mark's appeal failed. 

(Norwood v UK, 2004)

Freedom of the press to inform, and the right of the public to be informed 

When the Sunday Times wanted to publish an article on the drug thalidomide, but the government stopped it being published. The Sunday Times was investigating the drug thalidomide, which was prescribed as medication to pregnant mothers and caused many children to be born with disabilities. The newspaper wanted to publish an article on how it was introduced into the UK and the proposed settlement of the claims against its manufacturers taken by children affected by the drug - having previously argued that settlements were insufficient. 

The government got an injunction, and stopped publication of the article on the grounds that it would be in 'contempt of court'. The Sunday Times took a case to court, arguing that the injunction violated the right to freedom of expression.  

The Court agreed that there had been a breach of freedom of expression, as in this case, the public interest was more important than being in 'contempt of court' (i.e. maintaining the authority of the judiciary). Freedom of expression protects the right of the public to receive information and be informed, as well as the freedom of the press to inform. 

(Sunday Times v UK, 1979)

Protecting journalists' sources 

After publishing stories about the murders of two British soldiers, investigative journalist Suzanne was issued a court order to hand over her mobile telephone, computer records and notes on the Real IRA. Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Tribune, Suzanne argued that handing over the notes would put her life at risk and the lives of her family at risk too. She also argued that it would compromise the protection of her sources. 

The court recognised that the complying with the court order would have threatened Suzanne and her family's lives, and compromised the protection of her sources. The judge concluded that “the concept of confidentiality for journalists protecting their sources is recognised in law”, including under the Human Rights Act. 

(Breen v Police Service of Northern Ireland, 2009, available here)