Free speech and protest
The right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest are crucial in a democracy – information and ideas help to inform political debate and are essential to public accountability and transparency in Government.
Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.
- Theodore Roosevelt, 1918
Freedom of speech and freedom to protest are closely linked – free speech would mean nothing if there was no right to use public spaces to make your views known.
The rights to free speech and protest, along with the right to form and join associations or groups, are found in Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act.
These rights can be limited by law to protect the interests of others, but only when the limitation is proportionate and necessary in a democratic society.
So, for example:
- the right to free speech will not protect a person who tries to spread hateful lies against another but it will protect fair comment;
- the right to protest won’t protect violent gatherings but it will protect peaceful protest.
In recent years we have seen a variety of measures introduced that undermine the right to protest and freedom of speech:
- Laws intended to combat anti-social behaviour, terrorism and serious crime are routinely used against legitimate protesters;
- Broadly drafted anti-terrorism offences of 'encouragement' and 'glorification' of terrorism threaten to make careless talk a crime;
- Membership of certain organisations can be banned under anti-terror laws even if the organisation is non-violent and political;
- Hate speech laws have been extended in a piecemeal way to ban ever-expanding categories of speech;
- Broad anti-terrorism powers of stop and search have been used to harass and stifle peaceful protesters;
- Protest around Parliament has been severely restricted by laws limiting and overly regulating the right to assemble and protest around Parliament.