Free Speech: A valuable reminder

Posted by Ian McDonald on 04 May 2012

The very day after we celebrated World Press Freedom Day, Article 10 of the Human Rights Act has once more hit the headlines – and again for all the right reasons.

Malcolm Calver, a councillor in Wales, had been found to have breached the code of conduct for local government by a standards watchdog. His offence was posting insulting comments about fellow councillors on the internet. But yesterday the High Court ruled that this censure violated Mr Calver’s rights under Article 10, which protects freedom of expression. Mr Justice Beaton said:

“…it is necessary to bear in mind the traditions of robust debate, which may include some degree of lampooning of those who place themselves in public office, when deciding what constitutes the ‘respect and consideration’ required by the Code.

“I have concluded that, in light of the strength of the right to freedom of expression, particularly in the present context, and the fact that the majority of the comments posted were directed at other members of the Community Council, the Panel’s decision that they broke the Code is a disproportionate interference with the claimant’s rights under Article 10 of the Convention”.

The High Court’s decision means the Adjudication Panel for Wales’ ruling that Mr Calver broke the code of conduct is quashed. The Judge rightly recognised that freedom of expression is absolutely crucial to our open society. Free speech is too easily taken for granted but vital to any robust democracy. Information and opinion must be allowed to be shared to help inform political debate and ensure accountability in government. People like Mr Calver must be free to hold views and impart ideas without State interference. Obviously Article 10 is a qualified right, so there can be limitations if strictly necessary. But in this case Mr Calver should have been allowed to complain about council meetings and other councillors in the way he did.

World Press Freedom Day was a great reminder of how Article 10 protects journalists and the essence of a free press. This High Court ruling is a reminder of how important Article 10, and the rest of the Human Rights Act, is to every single one of us.