The Right to Freedom of Expression is protected by Article 10 of the Human Rights Act.

How might this right be relevant to my life?

This right is about being able to have your own opinions and to express them without government interference. This includes being able to receive and share information and ideas.

This rights means:

  • We are free to express our views in many ways. For example, through articles, books, internet, television, radio, public demonstrations, artwork, social media.
  • All types of expression are protected for example, political, cultural, commercial, and artistic expression.
  • We can hold and express unpopular opinions, including opinions which might shock others (although our right to do this can be restricted – see below).
  • We can receive information from others e.g via magazines or exchange ideas e.g. by attending a debate.
  • We have a free press. This means the media is not controlled by the government.
  • Journalists are protected from revealing their sources.

 

Can the right to freedom of expression be restricted by a public official?

 

Yes. This is a non-absolute right which means it can be limited or restricted in certain circumstances. For example, the government may decide to restrict a person’s freedom of expression if it puts other people’s rights at risk.

Freedom of expression does include the freedom to express unpopular or shocking ideas but the government can restrict this right if you encourage violence against other people or if you unlawfully discriminate against people. Unlawful discrimination is covered by Article 14 in our Human Rights Act; you can read about this right here.

Like all other non-absolute rights, if the government (or any public official) is going to limit the right to freedom of expression, the restriction has to be:

Lawful

There must be a law which allows public officials to take the action or decision which restricts the right to freedom of expression.

Legitimate

The restriction has to be for a reason set out in the law. Legitimate reasons for restriction the right to freedom of expression could be:

  • protect national security, territorial integrity (the borders of the state) or public safety
  • prevent disorder or crime
  • protect health or morals
  • protect the rights and reputations of other people
  • prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence
  • maintain the authority and impartiality of judges

Proportionate

The government or public body has to have thought about other things they could do, but there is no other way to protect you or other people. In other words, it must be the least restrictive option. This means that blanket, automatic restrictions that apply regardless of individual circumstances will be in breach of the right to freedom expression.

You can ask the public official about their decision or action and and ask them to tell you how it was lawful, legitimate and proportionate.

If you can think of a way to deal with this situation or decision that is less restrictive to you then you can raise it with the public official as the decision may not be proportionate.

What duties do public officials have?

To respect your right: 

This means public officials (including the government) should not interfere with the right to freedom of expression, unless it is necessary, and they can show that this is the case.

To protect your right: 

This means that the government and people working in public bodies should take ‘reasonable and appropriate’ measures to protect our right to freedom of expression.

To fulfil your right: 

When things go wrong, regarding the right to freedom of expression, there should be an investigation and steps should be taken to try and stop the same thing happening again.

 

Limiting freedom of expression 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)

 

Protecting Journalist’ 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. As Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Tribune, Suzanne argued that handing over the notes would put her life at risk and those of her family as well. 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)

The 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, the government stopped it being published. The Sunday Times was investigating the drug, 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: 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)