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Free speech? Don’t believe the hype!

Free speech? Not exactly

Free speech? Not exactly

There’s an interesting piece posted to the Isle of Man Newspapers website this week about freedom of speech.

Just one problem – we don’t have it, and never have.Julie Blackburn has an opinion piece about the way people treat each other on social media, arguing venomous abuse is shutting down freedom of speech.

But her piece begins:

Freedom of speech has always been a guiding principle of a free and civilised society.

We are lucky enough to live in a country where it is taken as a given and it is something many of us would fight to preserve.

By definition freedom of speech means the right to say things that not everyone will agree with and, ultimately, to ’speak truth to power’.

And so the article starts with a commonly-held fallacy.

Freedom of speech is not guaranteed in the UK or the Isle of Man. There is, quite simply, no such thing.

Where do we get this idea? Probably from watching too much American TV. You see, the United States does have constitutionally-protected free speech.

The First Amendment says:

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.

But in the Isle of Man and in the UK, there’s no constitution. We operate through entirely different legislative means.
In fact, there are considerable curbs on speech.

Inciting racial hatred, for example, is a criminal offence. The UK has a criminal libel offence. Contempt of Court prevents publishing material that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the US when it comes to reporting court stories.

That’s before we get onto civil matters such as defamation, which limits what anyone can say about somebody else.

And then there are privacy considerations, mostly under EU law, which impose boundaries on speech.

There are provisions under Article 10 of the UK’s Human Rights Act to allow free expression – but even these are limited. Those limitations to free speech must be:

  • covered in law
  • necessary and proportionate
  • to protect national security, territorial integrity or public safety, prevent disorder or crime, protect health or morals, protect other people’s reputation or rights, prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence, maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary

Those provisions are broadly reflected in the Isle of Man’s Human Rights Act.

That’s not to say Julie’s the only person labouring under a misapprehension. Many people talk about free speech, and their right to it.

One Isle of Man Facebook group I can’t really keep naming and shaming is full of people shouting about their right to free speech.

The truth is they don’t really have one. Even under human rights provisions, free speech with limitations can’t really be called free speech at all.

And so the article’s headline “Is this where freedom of speech was meant to take us?” is actually meaningless. We’ve never had free speech and so it can’t have been meant to take us anywhere.

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