Free Speech Laws in the UK: An Overview

Juliana Rordorf - 14 08 20

Though omnipresent in today’s ultra-connected and ever-divisive world, the question of free speech in the United Kingdom seems of particular relevance at present. Be it tensions surrounding so-called “cancel culture”, contentious critiques of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, or newspaper articles published by the dozen: free speech, and the rights of UK citizens, is top of many people’s minds. 

Exploring the existence of free speech laws in the UK, their nuances, and whether or not these laws are co-opted by various groups or individuals is essential in understanding the current debates around these issues. In this second installment of HOPE not hate’s mini series on free speech and the radical and far right, we will take stock of current free speech laws and traditions in the UK. 

Free Speech Laws and Traditions 

Through a long history of recognising the importance of freedom of speech, citizens of the United Kingdom enjoy some of the greatest freedoms of any people in the world to write and speak their minds both publicly and privately.

Though the right to free speech or expression was not, for the majority of modern history, generally recognised by the common law, Article 10 of the 1998 Human Rights Act guarantees all in the UK the “right to freedom of expression”. While there has been no equivalent in the UK to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any law or action (short of that preventing “imminent” illegal acts, such as clear incitement to violence) that interferes with a person’s freedom of speech or with the freedom of the press, the average British citizen can feel safely assured that they are able to share what they think, feel, and believe without intensive governmental constraints. 

While freedom of expression is protected in the UK, it is crucial, both for this report and in general, to note that this freedom is a qualified right, meaning that there are certain circumstances in which it may be overridden. According to the Human Rights Act of 1998, freedom of expression “may be subject to formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society” and goes on to specify that these restrictions may be:

“in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary”.

As a result of this, the UK allows for the regulation of free speech, and the ultimate blocking of speech, to protect people from suffering abuse on account of who they are. Moreover, Britain has laws that specifically deal with hate speech, defined in the UK as “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress” with the intent “to stir up racial hatred” or when “having regard to all the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up thereby”. 

These laws are broad, and cover hate speech beyond the category of race. For example, Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA), has been revised over the years to include language that is deemed to incite “racial and religious hatred”, as well as “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” and language that “encourages terrorism”. The Terrorism Act of 2006, furthermore, criminalises “encouragement of terrorism” which includes making statements that glorify terrorist acts. Additionally, Section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003 makes it illegal to send a message via a public electronic communications network that is considered grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. 

More recently, the UK introduced an “Online Harms White Paper” in which the government laid out one of the most ambitious plans to date to combat “Illegal and unacceptable content and activity (that) is widespread online“ including “a new statutory duty of care, to be policed by an independent regulator and likely to be funded through a levy on media companies”. Though currently awaiting to be presented to parliament as a bill, these plans are further evidence of the UK’s commitment to regulating dangerous speech. 

Alison Chabloz (right) alongside Nazi activists Kevin Layzell and Richard Edmonds

In addition to the content of speech, the UK has laws in place to regulate how dangerous speech is spread. For example, notorious British antisemite Alison Chabloz and her 2018 conviction for Holocaust denial presents the complexities around how speech is spread. Prior to her conviction, Chabloz posted antisemitic videos on her YouTube account culminating in three original songs vehemently denying the Holocaust in which she calls Auschwitz a “theme park”.

As Holocaust denial is not illegal in the UK, the courts examined Chabloz’s methods of spreading hate and falsities and brought charges of “causing to be sent by a public communications network an offensive, indecent or menacing message or material” and “sending by a public communications network an offensive, indecent or menacing message or material”. All of the charges were brought under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003. While her sentence was originally delayed, Chabloz was eventually jailed for violating her social media ban by posting on her blog.

Furthermore, the question of the intent of speech is certainly worthy of note. While intent is often used, not just by elements of the far right, as a means of defending speech (i.e. the “I did not mean it that way” excuse), UK hate speech laws actually account for this complexity. According to the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) guidelines for prosecuting hate laws, prosecutors should always consider intent and when the evidence is not clear, “rely upon people’s actions in order to infer their intention.” 

Jeremy Bedford-Turner, a self-described fascist and figurehead of the now dormant far-right conference group London Forum, provides an interesting case study on the question of intent. Turner was found guilty in 2018 of incitement to racial hatred for his speech at a July 2015 event outside Downing Street, during which he blamed Jews for both World Wars and told the crowd “let’s free England from Jewish control. Let’s liberate this land. Listen, soldiers, listen to me. It’s time to liberate our country.” Explaining his motives to HOPE not hate’s Patrik Hermansson during Patrik’s year undercover in the alt-right, Turner said

“And you’re speaking to a small crowd but ultimately you’re speaking to the YouTube audience. So you try to stay within the laws. Ideally though you stay in the law just enough to encourage the enemy to try to prosecute you. Try to and then fail. Take you to court. And then you win. Then the journalists could discuss it…anyone could discuss it…” 

In this, Turner is highlighting his clear intent to broaden the ‘Overton Window’ (the range of ideas the public will accept) to the point where it includes his prejudiced and hateful politics. It is these blatant examples of malice that solidify the need for intent focused law. 

Jeremy Bedford-Turner, figurehead of the London Forum
Jeremy Bedford-Turner, figurehead of the London Forum

While more heavily regulated than speech laws in the United States, the practice of regulating hate speech is widely culturally accepted in the UK. For example, as evidenced by a 2018 YouGov report, the large majority of the British public believe that offensive or hateful speakers should be barred from speaking at universities; indicating support for regulated speech, at least at universities. 

It is important to note, though, that there certainly exists polling on related, but slightly different questions, that elicits different responses and results. For example, HOPE not hate commissioned a 2017 poll showing that, of those polled, 51% agreed with the statement “Political correctness is used by the liberal elite to limit what we can say”. In this case, we see evidence that some of the British public does feel that free speech is under attack.

In short, generally speaking, regulating hate speech is culturally accepted, but it does differ from topic to topic. British (and many other European) far-right movements, however, have pushed for a more open notion of free speech as it is understood in the United States, as they believe that existing hate speech laws stifle the ability of the right to share their ideas. 

So what?

Constantly evolving, free speech laws and traditions in the UK exist, simply put, to allow for freedom while protecting the diversity of culture, religion, race, gender, sexuality, opinion, and more of UK citizens. Complex and nuanced, an understanding of free speech laws is essential in an exploration of how the far right and radical right co-opt the notion of free speech for their benefit. 

In next week’s installment, we will begin to explore case studies of free speech in the far right and radical right, beginning with Nigel Farage.


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