Freedom of expression

You have the right to hold your own opinions and to express them freely without government interference.

This includes the right to express your views aloud or through:

  • published articles, books or leaflets
  • television or radio broadcasting
  • works of art
  • communication on the internet.

Example

The right to freedom of expression is particularly important for journalists and other people working in the media. They must be free to criticise the state without fear of prosecution – this is an important feature of a democratic society. However, the media does have to bear in mind other human rights, such as a person’s right to respect for their private life.

The law also protects your freedom to receive information from other people by, for example, being part of an audience or reading a magazine.

Restrictions

Although you have the freedom to express your views and beliefs, you have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect other people’s rights.

Public authorities may restrict your right to freedom of expression if they can show that their action has a proper basis in law, and is necessary and ‘proportionate’ in order to:

  • protect national security, territorial integrity 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 the judiciary.

It may be permissible to restrict your freedom of expression if, for example, you express views that encourage racial or religious hatred.

However, the relevant public authority must show that the restriction is ‘proportionate’, in other words the restriction must be no more than is necessary, appropriate and not excessive in the circumstances.

See also information on racial or religious hatred in the Equality section of this site.

What the law says

Article 10: Freedom of expression

1. 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 inference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. 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 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.

Example case

Observer and The Guardian v United Kingdom (1991)

The Guardian and The Observer newspapers published some excerpts from Peter Wright’s book Spycatcher, which contained material alleging that MI5 had conducted unlawful activities. The government succeeded in obtaining an injunction preventing further publication until proceedings relating to a breach of confidence had been concluded. Subsequently the book was published in other countries and then in the UK. The Guardian complained that the continuation of the injunction infringed the right to freedom of expression in Article 10.

The European Court of Human Rights held that although the injunction was lawful, as it was in the interests of national security, once the book had been published, there was insufficient reason for continuing the publication ban. The injunction should have been discharged once the information was no longer confidential.

(Case summary taken from Human rights, human lives, Department for Constitutional Affairs, 2006.)

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