In recent years, there has been some debate about the nature of free speech and what that entails. Some people feel that their right to express themselves have been restricted, while others believe that they also have the right to restrict people if they feel what they are saying is inappropriate.

It is important to emphasise that this is not intended to inflame a debate, merely to show what the legal definition of free speech is in the UK, as well as the responsibilities that come with it.

Legal definition
The legal definition of free speech varies from different countries. While most nations agree with the idea of expression, there are broadly two models of governing this. In a stricter authoritarian leadership, there is tighter monitoring of content, if it is felt that the material could potentially threaten the stability of the country. In a more “liberalised” nation, the focus would be more on the potential damage caused by hate speech, obscenity and defamation.

In the UK, the broad idea is that you have a right to say what you want with certain crucial exceptions- if it can be proven that your words could constitute harassment, alarm or otherwise be a breach of the peace then this can result in legal action. For example, if you are yelling at people in the middle of the street and threatening to hurt them, this is not covered under free speech.
The UK courts are also very strict when it comes to slander and libel- essentially the burden is on the defendant to prove that someone has committed the crime that they are being accused of.

Another example of legal free speech would be film and video game classification. This is one area that has been relaxed more in recent years. In 2010, it became a legal requirement for video games to have a certification, so that people are aware of the content and the appropriate audience.

In the 80s there was the “video nasty” period where a lot of titles were banned for fear of potential exposure to inappropriate material. Around the time of the 12 certification, certain examples of violence such as eye poking or headbutting could get censored.

Over time, this has become more relaxed, as there has been more of a recognition of context, so violence in a more fantastical setting is less likely to be censored. A good example of this was The King’s Speech, where the use of a strong swear word was judged to be allowed a lower certificate because it was used in the context of a therapeutic exercise.

The classic example people use to illustrate the nature of free speech is “Don’t yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.” The reason is while you can say it, saying that could cause panic and damage.
It can be difficult, but ultimately there is a responsibility people have, both in terms of the words used and the potential effects. If you feel that you have been slandered, or feel that you have been denied the right to say what you want, talk to Larcomes and contact our experienced team who can go over your situation and go over the case in more detail.