The UK government needs to work out just what “free speech” means

The Prince of Wales delivers the Queen’s Speech during the State Opening of Parliament 2022. Alastair Grant/PA Wire/PA Images

Unintended consequences and ideological incoherence. These phrases have dominated all discussions I have had in recent days about the British Government’s current approach to freedom of speech and expression.

There are now at least six pieces of legislation, outlined in last week’s Queen’s speech, which will be debated by the UK Parliament, which have a direct impact of our collective ability, in the UK, to exercise our rights to free expression. As individual pieces of legislation some are of value, but others are seemingly a political tool to set the scene for a battle about culture wars at the next British General Election, rather than to fix a problem in our society. That would be bad enough, but when considered in the round, rather than as individual laws, we are seeing a hotchpotch approach to free speech which is both ideologically incoherent and inconsistent as well as having numerous unintended consequences.

The best case in point is the proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which sets out to protect academic endeavour on campus, aiming to ensure that some of the most controversial and/or obscure issues are protected areas of academic enquiry. The Bill aims to give academics stronger protections in law to both study and discuss these issues. I have written previously about my concern that this is attempting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist and that most of the proposed provisions are already accessible under other legal frameworks, but as a principle how could Index on Censorship not seek to protect academic freedom both at home and abroad? But that brings to me to one of the inherent contradictions in the Government’s overall approach.

The Bill would provide legal protections to enable an academic to give a lecture on replacement theory – the idea that white populations risk becoming minorities as a result of immigration and high birth rates among migrants – something which I consider to be a racist and pernicious doctrine.

Replacement theory, while abhorrent, is not considered to be illegal speech, it could however be viewed as harmful speech. If the lecture was, however, then placed on a social media platform, under the Government’s proposals in the Online Safety Bill, it could be considered to be “legal but harmful” content and subject to deletion. So, you could give a lecture using protected speech in an auditorium, but your students wouldn’t be able to access it online, to debate and challenge it, and other academics wouldn’t be able to challenge the assertions of the controversial academic in any meaningful way online. So how does that protect free speech?

The British Government is also proposing a new Bill of Rights to enshrine UK human rights in a post-Brexit world. The Justice Secretary, Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, has stated that: “We will still be clamping down on those who try and use either media or free speech to incite violence, to radicalise terrorists, or to threaten children. All of those safeguards will be in place. But we’ve got to be able to strengthen free speech, the liberty that guards all of our other freedoms, and stop it being whittled away surreptitiously, sometimes without us really being conscious of it. So it will have a different status in the pecking order of rights and I think that will go a long way to protecting this country’s freedom of speech and our history, which has always very strongly protected freedom of speech.”

Which of course to someone like me who cherishes our right to freedom of expression is manna from heaven – or is it?  Because at the same time as the Justice Secretary is seeking to make freedom of speech the foundational human right in the British system, the Home Secretary is reviewing the Official Secrets Act in the guise of a new National Security Bill. This time, an exemption for a public interest defence, a longstanding provision which protects journalists when they publish the accounts of whistle-blowers relating to national security, seems to have been forgotten. This completely undermines the premise of media freedom and journalism being able to hold power to account.

The British Government is also proposing new legislation to severely limit the right to protest in the UK under a new Public Order Bill and a new Data Reform Bill which will change our rights to privacy online. The Government is also consulting on new legislation to counter strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) in order to stop the misuse of our libel system to silence the media and campaigners.

In other words, the Government is speaking a great deal about freedom of speech in the UK at the moment, but seemingly without any of the relevant departments or Government agencies talking to each other. As the inherent contradictions in their use and definition of free speech become more obvious, we will see a national picture in the UK which is even more convoluted and probably open to legal challenge.  Index is calling for a more strategic and defined approach to free speech in the UK and will be working with partners across the political spectrum to try and get to a place that protects all of our speech.

The Queen’s Speech is a systematic assault on free expression

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116759″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]As a political obsessive, I love the Queen’s Speech in the British Parliament. It marks the beginning of the new parliamentary session. It is uniquely British with all the expected pomp and ceremony and a significant amount of pageantry. But most importantly it is a restatement of our democratic values and processes. It also sets the agenda for the year ahead and makes clear what the Government is prioritising. And unfortunately, this year there were significant concerns for those of us who care about free speech.

The Queen outlined the government’s agenda and on the face of it who could object to an Online Safety Bill or a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill or even a Counter State Threats Bill. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail and the detail for too many of the British government’s proposals seems to have many, what I can only hope are unintended, consequences.

The draft Online Safety Bill proposes not only the establishment of a new category of unlawful speech in the UK – legal but harmful – but it also proposes outsourcing the regulation of free speech in the UK to Silicon Valley. Most concerningly there is no provision outlined which will let us know how much content has been removed – or even what has been removed. On the face of it, that might not seem that important but how would a victim know if they were vulnerable?  How will police prosecute hate crime? And how we will be able to analyse how much of a threat to free speech this bill has become, if we have no idea of how much is deleted. The Government has suggested that they will fine companies for deleting too much content but there is no provision outlined which would allow them to assess the scale.

The Academic Freedom Bill will establish a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure that free speech protections are enacted on campus, but this week the Government couldn’t answer whether this would empower Holocaust deniers to speak on campus – or stop them. What’s likely to happen instead is that academic institutions will be so concerned about the fear of a fine or bad publicity that they will stop speakers attending campus full stop – the ultimate chilling effect.

These are just two examples of why Index has such significant concerns of the direction that government is taking on free speech.

To be clear, Index supports any and all efforts to protect our collective right to free speech across the globe and we expect the British government to take a global leadership role in defending Article 19. But what we’ve seen in this year’s Queen’s Speech does not give us hope – rather it seems to be a systematic assault on free expression by the British government, under the auspices of protecting free speech.

I am a former legislator; I know that you cannot, and you should not try to legislate culture or language – it will have the opposite effect. People won’t want to engage and our public spaces will become free of debate and challenge. We deserve so much better. Going forward we will seek to work with the British government to introduce additional protections for free speech, we must use our voice to protect yours.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”41669″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

UK government must ensure it protects free speech with new counter-extremism plans

The government’s planned Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill must be carefully crafted to avoid damaging freedom of expression.

“The government’s move to counter extremism must not end up silencing us all,” said Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship. “We should resist any attempts to make it a crime for people of faith to talk publicly about their beliefs, for political parties to voice unpopular views, and for venues from universities to village halls to host anyone whose opinions challenge the status quo. We urge the government to use its consultation to ensure this does not happen.”


The government’s plans to tackle extremism through a “new civil order regime” and other measures must not undermine the very values it aims to defend, free expression organisations said on Wednesday.

Index on Censorship, English PEN, the National Secular Society, the Christian Institute, ARTICLE 19, Big Brother Watch, Manifesto Club and the Peter Tatchell Foundation welcomed plans to consult on the matter, following their demands earlier this year.

The proposals for a new law, outlined in the Queen’s Speech, are more ambiguous than earlier proposals made by this government, but nevertheless leave open broad measures to police a wide swathe of speech and should be resisted, the groups said.

The new legislation will include giving law enforcement agencies new powers to protect vulnerable people – including children – “from those who seek to brainwash them with extremism propaganda so we build a stronger society around our shared liberal values of tolerance and respect”, according to the background notes accompanying the Queen’s Speech.

More specifically, the government proposals are to legislate:

· Stronger powers to disrupt extremists and protect the public.
· Powers to intervene in intensive unregulated education settings which teach hate and drive communities apart.
· A new civil order regime to restrict extremist activity, following consultation.
· Closing loopholes so that Ofcom can continue to protect consumers who watch internet-streamed television content from outside the EU on Freeview.

The new proposals should avoid creating an environment that could make it even harder for people of all faiths and ideologies to express their beliefs and opinions, the groups said. Current legislation already prohibits incitement to violence and terrorism, and a compelling case for broadening them further through civil measures has not been made.

“The government’s move to counter extremism must not end up silencing us all,” said Jodie Ginsberg, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship. “We should resist any attempts to make it a crime for people of faith to talk publicly about their beliefs, for political parties to voice unpopular views, and for venues from universities to village halls to host anyone whose opinions challenge the status quo. We urge the government to use its consultation to ensure this does not happen.”

The groups said plans to introduce new laws in this area presented three main risks:

1. Definitions

It is still not clear how new legislation would deal with the problem of defining “extremism” in a way that would not threaten free speech.

The government has previously defined extremism broadly as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. The continued lack of a clear definition risks outlawing any political expression that does not reflect mainstream or popular views.

Britain already has a host of laws to tackle the incitement of terrorist acts, as well as racial and religious hatred. The government has previously been criticised for the broad definitions of “terrorism” in existing legislation, and the definition of ”extremism” in the Prevent Strategy. The proposed bill must not introduce new vague terminology and widen the net even further.

“The government’s approach to extremism is unfocused. Unless we can make them see sense, the range of people who could find themselves labelled ‘extremist’ by their own government is about to get a whole lot wider,” said Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute.

2. Nature of new civil orders

The government is ambiguous on whether they are still considering “extremism disruption orders” or “banning orders” within the package of civil measures. Though the promised consultation is welcome, these draconian measures are clearly not off the table.

Baroness Manningham-Buller, former head of MI5, has said previously that extremists need to be exposed, challenged and countered. The proposed measures would have the opposite effect and should not find their way into the new civil order regime.

“Extremism banning orders could mean political activists – or any other activists deemed to be ‘anti-democratic’ – such as environmental activists – could be outlawed in future, thereby undermining democracy itself,” said Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN.

Extremist disruption orders (EDO), suggested under earlier plans for the bill, could have a similar chilling effect on free expression and democracy. Under original plans for EDOs, the police would be able to apply to the high court for an order to restrict the “harmful activities” of an “extremist” individual. The definition of “harmful” could include a risk of public disorder, a risk of harassment, alarm or distress, or the ill-defined “threat to the functioning of democracy”.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “The prosecution thresholds for EDOs – as originally envisaged – are worryingly low – civil, not criminal – yet the consequences of granting of such an order, even if not broken, are likely to be very serious, e.g. rendering the recipient unemployable. Few faced with such a threat are likely to have the resources to mount any defence as proceedings will be at the High Court.”

“No convincing case has been made for the necessity of new measures to restrict free speech. Existing measures are already deterring individuals and groups from engaging in open debate on important issues. The plans re-announced today, though watered down, do not sufficiently address criticism the government has received; they not only threaten to further chill legitimate speech, but may also fuel divisive ideologies and make us less safe,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

3. International implications

Governments across the world – such as Russia, Turkey and Egypt – are increasingly using national security laws to censor free expression, including in the media. The government’s moves are likely to legitimise and embolden these efforts, setting a counter-productive example.

UN and regional human rights experts have jointly raised concerns regarding the potential impact of broadly defined initiatives to counter violent extremism on the free expression of minority and dissenting views. They have called for responses to violent extremism to be evidence based, and to respect international human rights law on freedom of expression and non-discrimination.


We call on the government to consult widely with all stakeholders, including civil society and minority groups, to ensure that a bill intended to tackle extremism does not undermine one of the values at the heart of democracy: that of free speech for all.

For more information or to arrange interviews, please contact:
– Melody Patry, head of advocacy, Index on Censorship.
[email protected]; 0207 963 7262
– Robert Sharp, head of communications, English PEN
[email protected]; 020 7324 2535

Padraig Reidy: We cannot choose which free speech we will defend and which we will not

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

It’s hard not to feel sorry for Abu Haleema. The poor man can’t catch a break. All he wants to do is establish a global caliphate under the harshest possible interpretation of sharia — a caliphate in which, he hopes, he will play a significant role — and yet he is thwarted at every turn.

First the authorities stop him from travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. And then, to add insult to injury, they take away his internet, like he’s a naughty teenager. It’s a hard knock life for Abu.

And it’s about to get even harder. In the Queen’s Speech, the government announced a new counter-extremism bill which, will essentially make the existences of Abu Haleema and people like him illegal, without actually making them illegal.

How does that work? To quote the BBC: “The legislation will also propose the introduction of banning orders for extremist organisations who use hate speech in public places, but whose activities fall short of proscription.”

This, in essence, is a thought ASBO, a convenient way of stamping out “extremism” without making any serious attempt to test that behaviour against any kind of proper harm principle.

Whether we like it or not, we do have laws on hate speech and incitement to violence in the United Kingdom. We also have the powers to proscribe terrorist organisations.

But these powers are apparently not enough: and so we must create semi-legal sub-strata of behaviour where people can be censored on the basis of us not liking what they say very much.

This is not some plea for accommodation of the views of Abu Haleema and his friends. Let us be very clear here: these are views which are entirely antithetical to the secular liberal democracy we aspire to be.

But that fact is exactly the test of a secular liberal democracy: if we are to imagine free speech as a defining value of democracy (as David Cameron has said he does) then we cannot just choose which free speech we will defend and which we will not (as David Cameron has said he wants to). As commentator Jamie Bartlett has pointed out, free speech is not something that one pledges allegiance to in the abstract while stifling in the practice.

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Predictably, we now turn to the life and times of George Orwell for a lesson from history.

In early 1945, a small group of London anarchists found themselves facing prosecution for undermining the war effort — specifically the charge of “causing disaffection among the troops”. Their crime was to criticise basic training, and to suggest that Belgian resistance movements should not hand over weapons to their Allied liberators, but instead retain their arms and set about building workers’ militias which would form a revolutionary force in post-Nazi Europe.

For this, several of the group were jailed, the British authorities of the time not noticing the irony of fighting for freedom in Europe while jailing dissidents at home.

The failure of the state — and the civil liberties movement — to stand for the right to free speech led to the formation of the Freedom Defence Committee.

Most of the supporters of the Freedom Defence Committee, including Orwell, would have had some sympathy with the anarchist position (Orwell had hoped, in the early days of the war, that the training and arming of the Home Guard would lead to a socialist revolution after the Nazis had been defeated. Apart from that, at least one of the accused, Vernon Richards, was a friend of Orwell’s).

But Orwell and his comrades in the Freedom Defence Committee were alert to the fact that one cannot simply defend the freedom of one’s friends. One also had to stand for the rights of communists and even fascists to hold their views. (Before any reader attempts to refer me to Orwell’s supposedly infamous “list” of communists and fellow travellers, supplied to his friend Celia Kirwan at the government’s Information Research Department, let me point out that it was a list compiled as a favour for a friend, not a blacklist: no one on that list was ever arrested, and they pursued their careers and lives unhindered). This led to the FDC taking the position that those with unpopular views – even those who had been (and still were) on the other side in the war, should be given the same justice as everyone else – demanding, for example, proper rights in cases of dismissal from employment when such a concept barely existed for anyone.

Fascists, communists and Islamists aside, there is probably not a single political grouping in Britain today that does not lay some claim to Orwell’s legacy. But as with free speech arguments, all tend to support the side that supports their side: libertarians cling to the anti-surveillance overtones in his work, while ignoring the long-held demands for state intervention on some issues. Conservatives admire the anti-communism, while ignoring the horror at capitalism, tradition, and the class system. Socialists pretend that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm were anything else apart from scathing attacks on left utopianism.

Orwell was a far from perfect figure, but he did get a lot of things right — the fundamental one being the consistent application of principles on issues of liberty.

It is fashionable to invoke Big Brother whenever governments introduce new surveillance measures, or suggest censorship of extremist views. It is also, generally, silly and hyperbolic. But when faced with an enemy entirely at odds with democracy, as we are with Islamist extremism, it’s worth noting that, as did Orwell and his comrades, it is possible to attack the ideology while standing firm on freedom.

An earlier version of this article stated that a group of London anarchists faced prosecution for suggesting the Belgian resistance movements should not hand over weapons to their German liberators. This has been corrected.

This column was posted on 28 May 2015 at