Free speech is controversial

Free speech means different things to different people, but we all think it’s a Good Thing. It fits with two things I have already written about in my series on Britishness: Multiculturalism and our Sense of Humour. That is because it means respecting other people’s views and it means seeing the funny side of things you don’t like. It also means being able to have a laugh at each other regardless of culture.

What do we disagree about regarding free speech?

There are legal limits on free speech. Whichever one of these limits you think about, some people think it’s too strict, whilst others think it’s not strict enough. Most people are quick to object whenever anyone wants to further restrict this freedom.

Here are some of the areas of controversy. 

Libel, slander and defamation. You can’t say or publish negative things about any individual without a good defence. It is not always a successful defence that the things are true!

Hate speech. It is illegal to incite hatred or violence, especially against minorities. There is a fuzzy line between hate speech and reasonable criticism.

Data protection. It is generally illegal to obtain or disclose personal data about anyone without their permission.

Confidentiality. The government, businesses and other organisations may lawfully require employees and others to treat certain information as confidential. There are rules protecting whistleblowers, but they are limited. There is hardly any way you can disclose anything concerning national security without the permission of the government.

Is there any free speech?

  • We are allowed to criticise the government or any other organisation and to express opinions about almost any topic.
  • Most journalists and broadcasters try to distinguish between opinion and fact. Sadly, many bloggers. tweeters etc do not.
  • Academic freedom also exists. People are free to research almost any topic and to publish their findings, subject to the limits I mentioned above.

Things have improved since King Charles I had people tortured for speaking out against him. That was one of the triggers for the English Civil War, which is the background of my novel Blood and Secrets about which I have blogged before.

The cover of Blood and Secrets. Charles I did not believe in free speech!

Charles I did not believe in free speech!


Why is free speech in the news at present?

The government is currently legislating about ‘no-platforming’. This refers mainly to the behaviour of some university students who prevent people they disagree with speaking in debates or giving talks. I think the answer is to let them come and speak, as long as someone with the opposing views is also invited. This could be either in a debate or to give another talk later. Christians have been debating with atheists and secularists for ages.


I have tried to summarise the issues fairly, but this is not a legal textbook. If you are unsure whether it’s OK to say, write or post something, please check with a more authoritative source. You might even need to consult a solicitor. Don’t blame me if you get into trouble for trying to exercise a freedom that does not actually exist!