Because freedom of speech is fundamental. It’s foundational. It’s a freedom that enables other freedoms too. If you damage freedom of speech, it’s like compromising the foundations of a house – the rest of the structure will fall apart too. Without the freedom to speak we can’t fully enjoy freedom of religion, assembly, protest, or even enjoy a full life with family and friends.
Speaking freely enables our ability to think freely. If we cannot hear and debate new ideas or information, we cannot have a fulsome mental life either.
Christians believe that God has spoken to us in words. So when we restrict freedom of speech, we almost always reduce the opportunity for people to share the Gospel, or other important beliefs.
Lastly, if you believe that accountable government and a healthy democracy are important then you should care about freedom of speech. Free speech is essential for holding governments to account and is the lifeblood of any democracy.
Wrong. There should be no reason why people who are pro-life should be prevented from training in medicine, nursing or midwifery, just because there are many within the profession who would be willing to perform abortions. In the Abortion Act 1967, there’s specifically a provision to exempt medical professionals from performing abortions when they conscientiously object to them – this law explicitly recognizes that abortion is morally controversial and many people have strongly-held reasons to believe that it is wrong. They should not be discriminated against either in their professional capacity, or as students, by holding this view.
But that is not what Julia’s story was really about. There is a very important freedom of speech angle to this, which the ADF UK poll on free speech on campus evidenced. Nearly 40% students and recent graduates have been put off expressing their views on issues important to them at university because of fears that their careers would be adversely affected. This shows that the problem is not just for pro-life midwifery students; it is a problem for students from across all subjects and career paths.
Students need to be free to speak truthfully about issues important to them. This should not impact their future careers. If capable and intelligent students are deterred from speaking about important issues, either the job market or academic freedom will suffer.
Julia’s story is sadly just one of many. Cancel-culture, censorship, and no-platforming is a very common problem that has affected countless students and academics across universities in the UK, and the problem is far from being resolved. There will have to be a huge shift in culture and accountability if the situation is to change, and we are a long way from that.
Julia was only able to secure a positive outcome through legal advocacy and support. Many students have not had this assistance, which can be costly. That is why we remain committed to advocating for these foundational rights and invite you to join with us.
The Education Secretary recently confirmed that there is a widespread problem on university campuses where speech is not free – and he committed to passing legislation to tackle the issue. But until these plans are brought into law there will remain a problem. There is still a great need for the collective voice of free speech advocates to be heard and listened to by the government.
Actually, censorship at universities is a very real issue, and it is a growing problem. Within the past few years, aggressive censorship has impacted visiting speakers, student careers, academic research, and non-academic staff members; it is not a minor one-off issue. Julia is not the only person who has been impacted. Other students like Felix Ngole have had their future careers on the line for affirming the Bible’s views on marriage and life. Academics like Professor Kathleen Stock and Professor Jo Phoenix have been no-platformed and cancelled because of their reviews on gender. Mainstream societies in Oxford and Bristol universities have either been banned or done the ‘banning’ when confronted with ‘traditional’ perspectives.
Although there is existing law which already prohibits universities from restricting the free expression of students, staff and speakers, it has not been effective in stopping recurring cases of censorship. Case law also already affirms that free speech doesn’t really mean anything if it does not also protect speech that some might find offensive, shocking, or even insulting, but universities have ignored this.
Gavin Williamson’s proposals to parliament to bring in new legislation to respond to the issue will need to be passed into law, and then built upon to address all the issues of concern. There’s a long way to go.
The starting point is to first recognise that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any thriving and functional democratic society. It must, therefore, be afforded a special degree of protection.
Free speech protections are deeply ingrained in British law. As Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley put it 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.”
The European Court of Human Rights has also noted that “freedom of expression…is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.”
The line between what speech is permitted and what speech is not cannot and should not simply be drawn where the speech in question runs contrary to the prevailing norms in society – the human rights regime is designed to protect minority viewpoints which may well disturb, offend or which perhaps are simply just extremely unusual.
However, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. As the question assumes, it can, be restricted in certain narrow circumstances. For example, where the words in question are intentionally designed to lead others to violence, or where the words are defamatory.
Any such restriction must be carefully and sensitively assessed, which can only be done on a case-by-case basis. Public authorities, prosecutors and law enforcers must always opt for the least restrictive approach when seeking to resolve an issue concerning free speech rights.
Your freedom to speak is something you have just by virtue of the fact that you are a human person – it isn’t something given to you by any government.
Our legal tradition recognises this. Our common law is designed to respect fundamental freedoms unless there is good reason to interfere. So, your right to free speech is evident through lack of legal restriction.
However, there are also several international declarations that positively recognise your freedom of speech. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and our own Human Rights Act all recognise your right to speak freely.
Firstly, you can become better informed on the topic of speech and censorship. ADF UK highly recommends the book ‘Censored’ by Paul Coleman which charts how freedoms have been recognised and suppressed in Europe.
Of course, do write to your MP, and use some of the material from the campaign or other ADF UK publications to help you. Ask them to advocate for improved protections for freedom of speech. There is growing momentum behind such proposals and every letter emboldens them to support the cause.
You can submit your views to the government directly through the various consultations it holds. We will keep you informed of these opportunities if you subscribe to our email updates.
You could pray for and support our ministry. As you know, freedom of speech is a particular focus for us, and every donation enables us to better work with the government and allies. If you haven’t already, do sign and share the open letter to the Prime Minister at www.protectfreespeech.uk.