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We cannot afford to wrap a generation in cotton wool, says equality body

David Isaac, EHRC Chair | Equality and Human Rights Commission

4 min read Partner content

The right to free expression and to seek and receive ideas, without fear of persecution or interference, is one of our most cherished British values, says David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Freedom of expression is one of the most widely-discussed yet most misunderstood human rights. And in this time of great change and uncertainty, when sadly many points of view are increasingly polarised and public, it is more important than ever. There is something in the news almost weekly about people being banned from speaking or being pushed offline for having unpopular views.

The right to free expression and to seek and receive ideas, without fear of persecution or interference, is one of our most cherished British values. As a society we have always prided ourselves on a free press that holds the powerful to account and challenges injustice. Our diversity of views makes us vibrant, independent and tolerant.  

Freedom of expression extends to all different kinds of points of view. It does not discriminate. Even the most offensive and uncomfortable ideas – provided they do not incite violence or hatred – are protected by law.  

At the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we want reduce prejudice and build a fairer Britain for everyone. That’s why we think freedom of expression is so important. Silencing sometimes widely unpopular or (to some) disturbing views doesn’t make them disappear, and can in fact result in these views becoming more entrenched.

It’s much better to debate and challenge these views if you don't agree with them. I believe that listening to – and trying to understand another’s perspectives and hopes and fears –helps us to find constructive ways forward to help us build greater tolerance in society.

But let us be clear: freedom of speech comes with responsibilities. It is not a right to say whatever you like, whenever you like. The right can be legally restricted in a small number of specific circumstances, including where it amounts to hate crime, unlawful harassment or is a risk to public safety. These circumstances are set out clearly in the law – it is not the place of individuals or groups of people to decide what is or is not acceptable.

While the vast majority of public discourse does not fall into any of these categories, we shouldn’t stop thinking about how our words might affect others. There is no ‘right not to be offended’, but why would we deliberately seek to offend? Equally, there is no right to speak freely without any consequences at all – and a person with views that might shock or disturb others should not be surprised when they have to defend them.

But when the people with views that are different from others are harassed to the extent that they have to leave social media, resign from their job or, in the case of some political figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Stella Creasy, fear for their safety and that of their children, this does everyone a disservice.

Fear of saying ‘the wrong thing’ should not stop us from saying anything at all. For example, Sarah Champion and Sajid Javid have the right to express genuine concerns about child exploitation and what cultural drivers may be behind the disproportionate number of grooming crimes committed by certain ethnic minorities. 

We need respectful discussion on both sides of a debate to resolve new and pressing issues, including how we protect and include transgender people in society while guaranteeing women’s safety and dignity, or about the kind of country we wish to be as we prepare to leave the European Union.

Freedom of speech is also the cornerstone of our democracy, and everyone involved in political debate is accountable for ensuring that even if they are robust, their views are respectful and truthful. While members of political parties should be able to speak freely, they also have a duty to conduct debate responsibly and set an example for others. This means not promoting extreme stereotypes, making personal attacks, spreading false or misleading information, or deliberately stirring up hostility and division.

Sadly, as a society we do not always achieve this important balance. Too often politicians take sides between unbridled free speech on one hand, and censorship on the other.

We want to make sure that the next generation gets this right. This is why we will soon be launching new guidance for higher education institutions. Of course it is vitally important to protect students against harassment and stamp out prejudice and discrimination in universities. This is why last week we launched an inquiry into racial harassment on campuses. But universities should also be bastions for the free exchange of ideas, where passionate but respectful debate can always thrive. They should support all students to develop their critical faculties and defend their views. We cannot afford to wrap a generation in cotton wool if we want them to address the important issues that shape our future.

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Read the most recent article written by David Isaac, EHRC Chair - Detail of EHRC review of ‘hostile environment’ policies published


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