Freedom of Speech – the Excuse on everyone’s lips

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Considered as a fundamental element of any constitution which expresses a link to democracy, freedom of speech has transformed from an unprotected positive right to an entity which now pervades daily life following the enactment of The European Convention on Human Rights 1950, in particular Article 10, and the Human Rights Act 1998.

Re-affirmed by the European Court of Human Rights in Handyside v United Kingdom (1976) 1 EHRR 737 ‘The Court’s supervisory functions oblige it to pay the utmost attention to the principles characterising a ‘democratic society.’ Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man’.

However, with a lack of a written constitution, the boundaries of this particular freedom are difficult to shape as the United Kingdom finds difficulty in the balancing of different interests such as freedom of speech on the one hand for example, and the protection of public order, on the other. The attempt to find such an equilibrium highlights that freedom of speech is unsurprisingly not an absolute right.

In the presence of global technical advancements, however, the situation seems more one-sided that it would first appear. With a wealth of social networking sites, the world becomes smaller as access to information is only as far away as you find yourself from your computer. As a platform for anything that you could wish to say and would want to know, the internet provides the rope with which is can easily hang itself.

The example of the London riots provides a sufficient example through which the extent of social networking sites are used in the exercise of this right. Used as a portal for the organisation of large groups of people in reaction to the death of Mark Duggan, sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Blackberry BBM became a hotbed through which emotions were fuelled and plans made to protest against the controversial shooting. The psychological influence of feeling part of ‘a greater cause‘ only ensured that the movement grew and included those who may not have participated otherwise.

Professing freedom of speech as a sword through which justice could be sought, the violent result highlighted the shield like quality of freedom of speech behind which the protestors hid. Whilst such events would have occurred without the input of Facebook and other similar sites, the speed and access to the information ensured it provided an accelerant to the fire which literally burned for over four days in the countries capital.

What appeared from the consequences of the events of August 2011 revealed the misconstruction of what people believed the exercise of freedom of speech to mean. The allusion that it allows a citizen to say or write what they wish, regardless of the incitement of violence it creates, is one which needs a taste of reality. In a system of checks and balances, freedom cannot be permitted without restraint; with rights comes responsibility.

However, where this control stems is one of controversy. In the search for a policing system the question arises as to who shall be the one to hold the retributional whip. The obvious candidate being the social networking sites themselves is one that could be easily but naively made. Holding no legitimate link to the justice system, the control as to what can and does constitute freedom of speech should not be made by those who are not qualified to make such decisions. The fine line between that which constitutes freedom of speech and that which would be damaging is one which is difficult to tread even by those who hold the legislative pen.

Unsurprisingly, the solution or the subject itself is not black or white and the potential for reform, which has been proved necessary, holds uncertain origins. Whilst freedom of speech is a subjective freedom and the grey area it occupies will remain, it is not to the extent that it should be limitless.The ability to express your opinion is a freedom worth defending but care must be taken in reaching its extreme. As a fundamental element to a democratic society, the controversy surrounding this area is unsurprising but its moderation is essential to ensure that democracy remains.

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