Free speech and expression
Support imprisoned atheist bloggers in Bangladesh
Please write to the British High Commissioner to Bangladesh and urge him to lodge a formal complaint with the Government of Bangladesh over these anti-democratic arrests.
We work for an open and inclusive society with freedom of belief and speech. We believe that free speech is an essential liberty without which societies can easily slide into a culture of oppression, suspicion and fear. Freedom of speech has occupied an important part in humanist thinking for centuries and humanist organisations have always been active in campaigns for it.
One of our major past campaigns was against the blasphemy laws, abolished when the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill received Royal Assent in May 2008. Although blasphemy is now not an offence in the UK, internationally it remains a big problem, including in democratic countries such as the Republic of Ireland, which recently enacted a new blasphemy law, and at the UN where the Islamic states have been seeking to impose serious restrictions on criticising of religious beliefs. We work with and through the international humanist organisations to tackle these threats.
For many years, we also lobbied and worked on what eventually became the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and welcomed in particular the successful moving of an amendment to that Act which states: ‘Nothing in this Part shall be read or given effect in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents, or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief system.’
This made it clear that the law is intended to protect people, not belief. However, there are still many threats to free speech today. We monitor legislation for any threats to free speech and work to protect free speech – especially where violations of the right to free speech jeopardise the free discussion of ideas and values. To this end we:
- monitor use of legal provisions against harassment and incitement on grounds of religion or belief in equality legislation which can lead to unwarranted free speech restrictions by the back door
- join calls to change UK libel laws to prevent victimisation of scientists, journalists, and human rights campaigners
- work with others to make legislation less restrictive of valid expressions of free speech, such as liberalising the Public Order Act in relation to ‘insulting’ behaviour
- advocate reform of the regulations and practices which lead bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority and advisory bodies such as the Committee on Advertising Practice to chill free speech in the name of preventing ‘offence’ and cause commercial interests to do the same
- protect and secure the right of students to freely criticise religions and other ideas and beliefs without fear of punishment under Student Union or University policies
- support the work of the European Humanist Federation and International Humanist and Ethical Union, who work on free speech issues globally, including on blasphemy laws
At the same time we support necessary restrictions on advertising that, for example, protect the public against actual harm from false claims. For example, we have taken action to refer anti-medical claims of evangelical churches to advertising regulators where they have done harm to people.