Where do the Main Parties Stand on Freedom of Expression? – The London Economic
Freedom of Speech General Election

Where do the Main Parties Stand on Freedom of Expression?

By David Binder

With the election mere days away, and with all manner of policies, arguments, counter-arguments, slogans, tweets and hashtags swamping us, you could be forgiven for not knowing who to vote for.

One way to help navigate this dilemma is to ask ‘what matters to me/my family/my dog/my community/town/country/universe (delete as appropriate), and then look at what each party seems to be saying on that issue/s and proceed on that basis.

I’ve written before (here and here on why I believe freedom of speech, expression and the right to offend to be of paramount importance, whoever you are and whatever you believe. Put briefly, free expression is nothing less than a core component of our humanity. Without expression, we are unable to demonstrate what we believe, how we feel, and ideas and truths which could change the lives of those around us. As such, any attempt to diminish this principal right (save for incitement to violence or murder) can be seen as an attack on our own personal humanity.

With all of this in mind, I decided to put the following two questions to the main political parties plus some less established participants (alas, it was inevitably impossible to cover every single party standing):

  1. If part of the Government post May 2015, what would your party do to uphold freedom of speech?
  2. Would your party uphold the ‘freedom to offend’ (that is, speech or expression that may be deemed offensive by an individual or group regardless of the intention)? If so why, and if not why not?

The Conservative Party

Votes David Cameron

Read the 2015 manifesto here

When contacted for comment, the Conservatives did not offer a reply.

Their 2015 manifesto however mentions nothing in regard to freedom of expression and offence. However, they appear to commit to (or at best refuse to rule out) taking a tough stance when it comes to surveillance and counter terrorism, which could have a negative impact when it comes to free expression (note particularly the third bullet point):

‘Keeping you and your family safe is our overriding priority. The threat of extremism and terrorism remains serious, but with our tough, intelligent and comprehensive approach, we will confront and ultimately defeat it. We will:

  • Strengthen the ability of the police and intelligence agencies to disrupt terrorist plots, so the authorities have all the tools they need to prevent attacks
  • Deal with online radicalisation and propaganda, so we can reduce the risk of young people being drawn into extremism and terrorism
  • Tackle all forms of extremism, including non-violent extremism, so our values and our way of life are properly promoted and defended.’

The Conservatives go onto say:

‘To restrict the harmful activities of extremist individuals, we will create new Extremism Disruption Orders. These new powers might, for instance, prevent those who are seeking to radicalise young British people online from using the internet or communicating via social media. We will develop a strategy to tackle the infiltration of extremists into our schools and public services. We will strengthen Ofcom’s role so that tough measures can be taken against channels that broadcast extremist content. We will enable employers to check whether an individual is an extremist and bar them from working with children. And we will take further measures to ensure colleges and universities do not give a platform to extremist speakers.’

BINDER’S VERDICT: The Conservative Party’s measures as announced in their manifesto are potentially amongst the most damaging out of all the main parties in terms of curtailing free expression. Whilst the vast majority of the UK public would of course not want extremist content and ideas to prevail in our society, the fact that such proposed legislation could leave considerable room for interpretation as to what counts as ‘extremist’ is worrying.


The Labour Party

Labour Leader

Read the 2015 manifesto here

In response to the two questions, a Labour spokesman said:

‘The free flow of information and different points of view is crucial for open debate and countering concentrations of unaccountable power.

The concentration of media power in too few hands is damaging to our democracy and the current system to protect media plurality is inadequate.  Labour will take steps to ensure that no media outlet can get too big, including updating our rules for the 21st century media environment. We remain strongly committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry.

We will also repeal the Lobbying Act which gags charities and campaigners whilst failing to clean up lobbying – letting powerful vested interests off the hook. We will instead replace it with real reform of the lobbying industry and measures to ensure transparency in elections and protect freedom of speech.

The Human Rights Act is a modern day British Bill of Rights that protects basic rights such as freedom of speech. Labour is proud of Britain’s role in protecting and championing human rights across Europe and beyond. A Labour government will stand up for individual citizens’ rights, protecting the Human Rights Act and reforming, rather than walking away from the European Court of Human Rights.’

BINDER’S VERDICT: It is noteworthy that the Labour Party have concentrated on the media and Human Rights Act in their response to my questions. Whilst they say they will stand up for Citizens rights and free speech (in the context of the Human Rights Act) they do not say explicitly whether they would protect this right when it is deemed offensive or hateful.


The Liberal Democrats

5 Certainties General Election 2015

Read the manifesto here

When contacted for comment, the Liberal Democrats declined to offer a reply.

Their 2015 manifesto promises however to introduce a Freedoms Act to:‘Protect free speech by ensuring insulting words, jokes, and non-intentional acts, are not treated as criminal’.

‘As the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris showed, freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted. In an open society there can be no right ‘not to be offended’

Furthermore, the Spring Conference in 2015 reaffirmed the Liberal Democrats’ belief that people have the right to offend others: ‘There is no place for restrictions on acts of blasphemy in law or by intimidation leading to self-censorship.’

BINDER’S VERDICT: Out of the main parties, the Liberal Democrats seem the one of the most committed to freedom of expression in terms of defending it even when it is deemed as offensive, in that they are only major party to explicitly state they’ll protect free speech to this extent throughout the whole of society, not just within the established media. The only note of concern is that they they don’t explicitly promise they’ll protect freedom to offend in their second freedoms act.


UKIP

UKIP

Read the manifesto here

UKIP declined to submit a response to my questions. However unlike some, UKIP do explicitly mention freedom of speech:

‘(UKIP) would uphold freedom of speech within the law as a fundamental British value. We believe all ideas and beliefs should be open to discussion and scrutiny and we will challenge the ‘culture of offence’ as it risks shutting down free speech

We also recognise that British values include tolerance of religion. UKIP is committed to protecting religious freedoms for all believers in the UK, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We believe, however, that those faiths and beliefs must exist firmly within a British framework. We will not condone any faith position which is itself intolerant and refuses to recognise the human rights of others.’

BINDER’S VERDICT: UKIP definitely appear amongst those committed to upholding, and like the Liberal Democrats they commit to doing so even when it causes offence. However, they also say that expression relating to faith must exist ‘within a British framework’ and that that they would not condone any faith position which is ‘intolerant.’ I put both terms in inverted commas as I’m not clear what UKIP mean by either of these idioms mean!


The Green Party

Green Party

Read the manifesto here

In response to my first question, a Green Party press officer said:

‘The Green Party is committed to upholding the principles of freedom of speech and peaceful protest. We would:

  • Retain the principle that human rights like freedom of speech are the common property of the whole world by keeping the Human Rights Act and retaining the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights and the Council of Europe
  • Immediately repeal the unsatisfactory Lobbying Act, so that civil society organisations can campaign properly.
  • Oppose any case for secret unaccountable mass surveillance of the type exposed by Edward Snowden. We do accept that government law enforcement agencies may occasionally need to intercept communications in specific circumstances. Such specific surveillance should be proportionate, necessary, effective and within the rule of law, with independent judicial approval and genuine parliamentary oversight.
  • Replace the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, which has failed to support the confidentiality of journalistic sources.
  • Support and protect Internet freedom.
  • Follow human rights judgments limiting surveillance and data retention in full.
  • Limit the censoring or takedown of content or activity to exceptional circumstances, clearly set out within a comprehensive legal framework.
  • Make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible, and prevent patents applying to software.
  • Introduce a more satisfactory law on so-called malicious comments made on social media than the blanket and crude section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
  • Use government purchasing power to support open standards in information technology’

They went onto say in regard to my second question:

‘The Green Party believes the state and persons holding positions of power to control activities shall not censor freedom of artistic expression or freedom of speech. Where there is a conflict between the right to free expression or speech and the responsibility not to cause offence, we believe this should be dealt with by allowing the offended person equal right of reply. We also plan to introduce a more satisfactory law on so-called malicious comments made on social media than the blanket and crude section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.’

BINDER’S VERDICT: Whilst this response appears to commit the Green’s to upholding freedom of expression and the freedom to offend, when digging around, it appears the Greens have only committed to this in the context of media and cultural activity. Thus, at the very least, more clarification is needed as to whether the Greens would uphold this position in wider society, not just within the spheres of media and ‘cultural activity.’ (N.B. I’m not even sure what would qualify as ‘cultural activity’ and what would not!)


SNP

SNP

Read the manifesto here

The SNP did not offer a reply to my questions when contacted.

The only mention in the SNP’s 2015 manifesto regarding free speech and civil liberties is:

‘We do not support Tory plans for the reintroduction of the so-called ‘snoopers’ charter’, which would see all online activity of every person in the UK stored for a year. Instead, we need a proportionate response to extremism. That is why we will support targeted, and properly overseen, measures to identify suspected extremists and, if necessary, examine their online activity and communications.’

Thus, like the Conservative Party proposals, these proposals could have worrying implications. Moreover, the SNP’s past record on this issue is disconcerting to say the least.

BINDER’S VERDICT: Like the Conservatives, the SNP’s past record and current plans could limit free expression considerably.


Positions of some of the smaller parties

SDLP

Read the manifesto here

Senior Policy Officer, Donal Lyons said:

‘The SDLP believes that the right to free speech and expression is a fundamental necessity for a healthy democracy. We believe that a free and fair discussion of different perspectives and viewpoints strengthens society, advances understanding and brings about a shared future.

We also recognise that human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent.

It is this interdependence which requires that no right be exercised in a way that is incompatible with the rights of others. This of course includes the complex relationship between freedom of expression, including that of opinions which may not be popular, and protection against incitement.

While comments may be subjectively offensive they may or may not be considered incitement.

As such we believe that a number of factors should be taken into account in determining the difference between offense and incitement and achieving a balance between one person’s freedom of expression and another’s right to security. These factors include, but are not limited to, those outlined in the UN’s Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of incitement ie. context of comments, identity and intent of speaker, content or form, extent and likelihood of incitement.

The SDLP supports the use of this and other Human rights tests to ensure that the rights of all are protected.

Specifically regarding your first question the SDLP continues to support a number of adjudication mechanisms such as the Parades Commission to adjudicate in scenarios where rights, including rights of expression, may come into conflict.  We feel it particularly important that these bodies operate free from political interference given our divided society and legacies of the Northern Ireland conflict.

We also support the Human Rights Act and the continuing work of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission in ensuring a rights based approach in used in matters of public policy and continue to call for a comprehensive Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.’

The Whigs

Read the manifesto here

In response to my questions, Whig leader Waleed Ghani and Bethnal Green & Bow candidate Alasdair Henderson said:

‘The Whig Party believes that freedoms of expression, thought, speech, belief, and conscience are the cornerstones of a free society. However, they have come under threat in recent years, particularly under the cover of knee-jerk counter-terrorism measures by both the Coalition and the previous Labour Government, and to a lesser extent through clumsy application of the (generally excellent) Equality Act 2010. We applaud the Coalition Government’s move to remove the word ‘insulting’ from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. However, that is about the only pro-free speech measure they have taken, with other changes having a chilling effect on freedom of expression, such as the recent duty in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 requiring schools and universities to prevent people being drawn into terrorism . We would scrap that duty. Following the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recent report showing great confusion about the application of religious discrimination law we would also investigate whether the Equality Act is being applied in a way that unduly restricts freedom of speech in the workplace.’

In relation to my second question, they went onto say:

‘Yes we would (uphold freedom to offend). The freedom to offend is an important element of our national debate, within the sensible limits of the restrictions on incitement to ethnic or racial hatred. Freedom to say only that which does not offend anyone else is no freedom at all. Freedom of speech is a great privilege, as well as a fundamental right, and should be exercised with courtesy. However, it must be lawful to say the unpopular, heretical, unfashionable and offensive. ‘British values’ include being confident enough to debate those we disagree with, not silence them.’

Christian Peoples Alliance

Read the manifesto here

In response to my first question, CPA leader Sid Cordle said:
‘Our manifesto says:-Education means teaching all points of view, otherwise it becomes indoctrination, not education. Sadly today too much of our education is beginning to fall into the indoctrination category. It is not the aim of CPA to indoctrinate something different but to educate properly. This basic rule needs to be instilled into our children when teaching all subjects. Teachers should be encouraged to teach from different perspectives not just their own but they should have the right to express their views as well as teaching the views of others. The idea that a Christian teacher cannot say that they are a Christian and why they are a Christian is wrong, but they have to understand and also teach the secular viewpoint.Equally a secularist or homosexual teacher should be able to say they are secular or homosexual but understand and teach the point of view of a Christian as expressed by Jesus in the Bible.

For Universities the CPA wants open debate on all issues and to encourage close relationships between Universities and the world of work. Our universities should increasingly become national debating centres and State funding should be given to encourage this process with certain debates and lectures being open to people from outside the University to come and participate.’

In answering my second question, Cordle said:

‘Absolutely, I hope that is clear from our manifesto as quoted above.  As someone who regularly goes down to Speakers Corner in London I want that sort of free open debate in a respectful atmosphere to be commonplace. We would repeal the Incitement to Religious Hatred Act and the Equality Act as both stifling free speech.’

English Democrats

Read the manifesto here

In response to my first question, English Democrat leader Robin Tilbrook said

‘We won’t be (in government), but we are strong supporters of traditional English civil liberties including Freedom of Speech.’

Answering my second question, Tilbrook said:

‘We do uphold that as part of Freedom of Speech.  Any rule preventing the right to offend in this way is a rule against the principle of Freedom of Speech.    The limit we would place on Freedom of Speech is the point at which it is used to threaten or to incite or amounts to a breach of the peace.’

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