Tuesday, 29 May 2012


Can I say what I like, when I like?

The Constitution says that we have the right to freedom of expression but does that mean I can say what I like without fear of arrest or retribution?

The Constitution says (in Clause 17):

Except with his or her own free consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression.  Which includes his or her freedom to hold opinions without interference, his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference, his or her freedom to disseminate information and ideas without interference (whether the dissemination be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons) and his or her freedom from interference with his or her correspondence or other means of communication.

So, it seems, if you disagree with something that your government or indeed a business or other institution is doing or proposes to do you have the right to say so. Nobody has the right to stop you from raising objections or concerns about their actions. You have the right to say or write what you believe even if you know it will be unpopular.  And if you want access to public information to help you put forward your case, nobody has the right to prevent you from having it.  If I think a policy adopted by government is stupid you have every right to express that opinion openly without fear of retribution.

One the face of it, then, you can say what you like when you like.  Except you can’t, and for some very good reasons . . . .

It is fundamental to our Constitution and legal system that we cannot infringe the human rights of other individuals.  We have a responsibility not to injure others, not to break the law, and not to incite others to do so. Therefore our right to freedom of expression is limited.

We can be prevented from expressing our views if it can be shown to be in the interests of protecting another’s human rights, safeguarding public health and/or safety, maintaining public order or in the interests of national defence. We are all protected from malicious damage to our reputations and from interference in our private lives.

So, for example, you cannot incite a riot.  You may hand out leaflets which argue for a change in the law (e.g. the de-criminalisation of Cannabis) but you must not encourage others to break the law while it is still in force. And if you want to publicly claim someone is corrupt or accuse them of a crime, you need proof.  Your right to free speech is limited by their rights.

Also you may have actually signed away your right to criticise.  (This is the “Except with his or her own free consent” bit.)  Your contract of employment, for example, may say you cannot publicly criticise your employer.  If you do so they can sack you for breach of contract.  So before you go public with your grievance, check your contract.

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