Monday, 5 July 2010

Freedom of speech

A Citizen’s freedom of speech is considered one of the most important rights in any civilised democratic society. In the United States this right is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. In Europe, and the UK it is covered by article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Despite freedom of speech being a right guaranteed in law there are bodies and individuals who seem not to understand what this means, and will attempt to silence or punish those who choose to exercise this right.

For example if you are familiar with this site, it will be apparent that the author does not like pharmacists very much, and has expressed views likely to offend. That is his right. Anyone offended has the right to express their disagreement, but one pharmacist reported the Doctor to the GMC claiming that what he had written was “unprofessional” and that his “behaviour falls seriously short of what would be expected from a doctor”. Interference with a convention right is unlawful and the pharmacist in question, in attempting to have the doctor disciplined, was undoubtedly guilty of such interference. Further the Medical act does not give the GMC the right to override other laws and in even considering this complaint the GMC were also guilty of interference with a convention right. This was a complaint that should not have been pursued yet it took the GMC six months to finally agree that there was no case to answer. There have been other similar cases where the GMC have shown considerable inconsistency in their approach to article 10.

Article 10 is not however an absolute right. It is a qualified right. What this means is that there are circumstances where Article 10 is overridden. Threatening behaviour is one example. Incitement to violence is another.

There is one body, and one body alone, that can specify when article 10 does not apply, and that is Government. There is one means, and one means alone, by which they may do this, and that is by legislation. Circumstances where article 10 does not apply must be clearly and precisely defined in law, and it is not open to the GMC or any other body or individual to themselves decide what constitutes acceptable behaviour in the field of freedom of expression. They may not pursue individuals simply because those individuals express views which piss people off. This has been verified in a legal case where it was made clear that “Article 10 applies not only to information or ideas that are favourable and inoffensive but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or a sector of the population.”

In a future post I will be looking at how article 10 affects the relationship between an individual and his employer.

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