We work for an open and inclusive society with freedom of belief, speech and expression. We believe that free speech and expression is an essential liberty without which societies can easily slide into a culture of oppression, suspicion and fear. Freedom of speech and expression 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 example as part of the End Blasphemy Laws campaign, which we launched with the European Humanist Federation and International Humanist and Ethical Union in 2015.
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 and expression today.
What we’re doing
We monitor legislation for any threats to free speech and expression and work to protect them – especially where violations of the right to free speech and expression 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, as part of the Libel Reform Campaign
- 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 advertising 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, for example through the End Blasphemy Laws campaign
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.
In 2014 we hosted the triennial World Humanist Congress in Oxford. At the Congress, the delegates approved the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression, which, in summary, states that:
- The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all.
- No one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief.
- The right to freedom of expression is global in its scope.
- There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions.
- States must not restrict thought and expression merely to protect the government from criticism.
- Freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not.
We assert the principles of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and secularism as providing the firmest foundation for the development of open societies where freedom of thought and expression will be protected and promoted.
We commit ourselves in all our work to uphold and promote existing rights to freedom of thought and expression within the international human rights framework and to resist national and international restrictions on the right of individuals to think for themselves freely and to openly express their views without fear.
We urge each of our member organizations and humanists worldwide to uphold these values in their own lives; to promote in their communities greater public understanding of the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of expression for all; to urge their governments to promote these values; and to join with humanists and others globally in defending and advancing them to the benefit of all humanity.
From the Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression, 2014
Let us know of any attempts you hear of to use the law, or the threat of the law, to censor legitimate criticisms of religious or non-religious beliefs or practices.
You can support the BHA by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to the BHA.