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Human Rights

Freedom of Expression Legal Framework

Guidance published by the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC)

2 Oct 2015, 15 year anniversary of the Act 50 Human Rights Cases transformed Britain (PDF, 464 KB)

Download: EHRC Freedom of Expression guidance (PDF, 161 KB)

Key points:

  • Freedom of expression is a fundamental right protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.  It is also protected under the common law.
  • Protection under Article 10 extends to the expression of views that may shock, disturb or offend the deeply-held beliefs of others.
  • Any restrictions on freedom of expression must always be clearly set out in law, necessary in a democratic society for a legitimate aim, and proportionate.
  • Subject to these conditions, freedom of expression may be limited in some circumstances and in particular does not protect statements that discriminate against or harass, or incite violence or hatred against, other persons and groups, particularly by reference to their race, religious belief, gender or sexual orientation.
  • No one can rely on the human right to freedom of expression to limit or undermine the human rights of others.
  • It is not always easy to draw the boundary between expressing intolerant or offensive views (which are afforded protection under Article 10) and hate speech or other very offensive communication so serious that it is not so protected.  Factors likely to be relevant in making the distinction will include the intention of the person making the statement, the context in which they make it, the intended audience, and the particular words and form of communication.
  • Freedom of expression is protected more strongly in some contexts than others.  In particular, a wide degree of tolerance is accorded to political speech and debate during election campaigns.
  • It is nonetheless a criminal offence to stir up hatred on racial or religious grounds or on the ground of sexual orientation.  Offensive or insulting language may also constitute harassment, either under the Equality Act 2010, or if directed at an individual under the Protection from Harassment Act.
  • In addition to the criminal law, there are a number of different contexts in which the law provides additional protection against offensive or harassing conduct. These contexts include employment, service delivery and education.
  • Public bodies must respect the rights to both freedom of expression and freedom from discrimination.  They are also subject to particular duties which require them to have due regard to the need to promote good relations between different communities protected by equality law. This may require them actively to challenge the use of offensive communication.


Human Resources

University of St Andrews
The Old Burgh School

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St Andrews
KY16 9LB
Scotland, United Kingdom

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