Index on Censorship urges the Law Commission to safeguard freedom of expression as it moves towards the second phase of its review of abusive and offensive online communications.
The Law Commission published a report on the first phase of its review of criminal law in this area on 1 November 2018.
While Index welcomes the report’s recognition that current UK law lacks clarity and certainty, the review is addressing questions that impact directly on freedom of expression and the Law Commission should now proceed with great caution.
Safeguarding the fundamental right to freedom of expression should be a guiding principle for the the Law Commission’s next steps. Successive court rulings have confirmed that freedom of expression includes having and expressing views that offend, shock or disturb. As Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley said in a 1999 ruling: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having”.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt also reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression this week, asserting the importance of a free media in particular as a cornerstone of democracy.
The next phase of the review should outline how the UK can show global leadership by setting an example for how to improve outdated legislation in a way that ensures freedom of expression, including speech that is contentious, unwelcome and provocative.
Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg said: “Index will be studying the Law Commission’s first phase report on its review of abusive and offensive online communications carefully. Future proposals could have a very negative impact on freedom of expression online and in other areas. Index urges the Law Commission to proceed with care.”