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Does Britain need to enshrine freedom of speech in a similar way to the United States?
Submitted by Alex Helling on 10 June 2014
The United States has the first amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” while Britain of course has nothing comparable.
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, thinks that the UK needs something similar
Jimmy Wales wrote:One of the big differences between the US and the UK is the first amendment, so the idea of smashing computers in the basement of the New York Times is basically inconceivable... One of the important things about the US is that something like the first amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights is very difficult to change – whereas here, it's not so easy to construct something that's difficult to change. Parliament can ultimately change anything with a majority vote and that's that.
This is exactly the problem; the UK does not have a constitution or any equivalent. Parliament can therefore pass whatever free speech laws it likes, and de-construct them whenever they wish as well. And since the government of the day by definition has a majority the government can usually do what it wishes.
The closest the UK currently has is the 1998 Human Rights Act that brought into effect the European Convention of Human Rights. The Convention's section on Freedom of Speech is rather more equivocal than its US counterpart “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” This is particularly the second part of the article says “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”. Rather a large range of possible reasons for restrictions.
Moreover the Human Rights Act and particularly the European Convention of Human rights is not very popular in the UK as it is associated with the meddling European Union (despite it being a Council of Europe convention). Although it is not likely to be repudiated in the near future, as doing so would mean having to leave the EU, it does have the unfortunate effect of human rights sometimes being seen as a foreign imposition; often by meddling Strasbourg judges.
However while getting rid of the Convention may not bother many people a British equivalent enshrining freedom of speech, or other human rights in some constitutional fashion in the UK would be an immense break with the past. At the moment the UK is one of very few countries without a formal constitution and is mostly happy with its informal system.
Something however is clearly necessary. While the intimidation of the Guardian over the publishing of Snowden's revelations about the security services is the most high profile attempt at stifling journalistic freedom of speech it is hardly the only one; there have been numerous cases of police investigations into journalists for their writings when they may be considered to cause offence. Most such cases would be covered by some form of first amendment enshrining freedom of speech. Freedom of speech applies to more than just journalists; social media has increasingly been an area where there have been concerns about hate speech and questions about how much freedom people should have to say what they like. An equivalent to the first amendment would include this form of speech as well so helping to clear up a currently somewhat confused area where people are unsure what they can and cant say.
Debatabase debate: This House believes it is sometimes right for government to restrict freedom of speech http://freespeechdebate.idebate.org/debatabase/debates/philosophy/house-believes-it-sometimes-right-government-restrict-freedom-speech