By Stacey Coates 

In an open democratic society, freedom of speech and press is essential.  The citizens of that country should be able to criticize their government and be free to express themselves over certain issues, even for issues that are unpopular and sometimes unorthodox.  For hundreds of years English law did not believe this to be true because of their laws limiting criticism of the government and state’s religion.  After new acts and laws have passed, organizations such as Reporters Without Boarders find England to be one of the freest countries in the world.[1]

Historical Background

England is part of the United Kingdom which consists of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.  The Acts of Union of 1707 brought together the kingdom of Scotland and England.  England is an island located northwest of France in the Atlantic Ocean and is connected to Scotland.  The population of Britain is 63,047,162 and more than 90 percent of the population are white and speak English.[2]  Over 80 percent of the population lives in urban areas like London, which is the capital.  The current English government is a Constitutional Monarchy with a Parliament.  The English Parliament ultimately runs the country and consists of the appointed House of Lords and the elected House of Commons.[3]  There are three main political parties in England: the Conservative, Liberal Democrats and the Labor Party.  England has been a frontrunner in economics, military and industry for many years.  England ruled over the Thirteen Colonies in America in the 1600s and 1700s, but because of England’s oppressive government on issues like freedom of expression and religion, the United States officially broke free from England in 1783.

Free Press

Historically, England has some of the strictest laws on freedom of the press.  In 1538, King Henry VIII issued a licensing law for all publications.[4]  The law proclaimed that anyone who wanted to print something, from books to shipping schedules, had to have a license.[5]  This law prevented the publication of opinions with which the King did not agree.  This was called prior restraint, which was action taken by the government to prohibit publication of a document before it is distributed to the public.[6]  The citizens protested this law for example, the poet John Milton’s speech, “Areopagitica—A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing.[7]”  Eventually, when Parliament overthrew King Charles they abolished the licensing system, but enacted their own licensing laws which ended in 1694.[8]

Another law that prohibited freedom of the press in England was the law of seditious libel and defamation.  The seditious libel law made it a crime to publish anything disrespectful of the state, church or their officers.[9]  This law was punishable by death, even if the claim was true.  Truth was not a defense for seditious libel, if a person’s reputation was harmed, the offender could be punished.  In the 9th century King Alfred the Great believed that people guilty of slander should get their tongues cut out.[10]  The laws in England no longer end in the loss of one’s tongue, but there are financial penalties.  One prominent libel case in England was the “McLibel” case.  This case was between McDonald’s and two members of the London Greenpeace, a local activist group, David Morris and Helen Steel.  The organization published a pamphlet, “What’s Wrong with McDonald’s?” and handed them out in front of McDonald’s restaurants.  McDonald’s sued, but Morris and Steel fought the longest libel case in England’s history, it lasted for 2 and a half years.  McDonald’s was rewarded £96,000 in damages, but their reputation was harmed by the claims in the pamphlet.[11]

Free Speech

Over the past few years, England has increased the freedom of the press.  In 2009, after a long struggle by free speech campaigns, the United Kingdom’s government abolished the laws on seditious libel and criminal defamation.[12]  For hundreds of years these laws have not allowed for criticism of the government and now journalists and the media are free to criticize the government.  In April of 2012 the United Kingdom has said that open justice is an essential principle of the constitution, and the public has the right to obtain copies of documents submitted in court cases.[13]  The decision came from a case where The Guardian newspaper wanted to obtain copies of the briefs and evidence in an extradition case used by the court.  The newspaper requested information for a piece they were working on.  At first the court did not believe the public should be allowed these documents for a number of reasons.  Eventually, the court reaffirmed the idea of open justice and now allows public to see documents submitted in court cases which allows for greater freedom of the press.

In England, before the time of a democratic Parliament, laws under the Monarch were very strict.  Freedom of speech, similar to the freedom of press in England, had been stifled by government.  Government created laws to ban the public’s criticism of government.  In the 1600s John Locke, the English philosopher, believed that government censorship was an improper exercise of power and freedom of expression is a natural right.[14]  Many years after John Locke, England agreed with the philosopher when the United Kingdom joined the European Convention on Human Rights.  The European Convention on Human Rights is a group that is aimed at furthering the realization of human rights and personal freedoms in Europe.  Now, citizens in England have the freedom of expression in accordance with the law under Article 10 of this document.  The right to freedom of expression is not an absolute right, it must fall under the conditions and restrictions of law, but it does give more freedom to speech in England.[15]  One of the laws that restrict freedom of expression is the Incitement to Racial and Religious Hatred in England.  The Race Relations Act of 1976 says that a person commits an offense if: he publishes or distributes written matter which is threatening, abusive or insulting or if he uses in any public place or meeting words which are threatening, abusive or insulting.[16]  In 2006, a man was convicted of inciting racial hatred during a protest against cartoons which were offensive to Islam.  Mizanuar Rahman said that soldiers should be brought back from Iraq in body bags and a jury found him guilty for using words with the intent to incite racial hatred.[17]

Currently in England, a teenager is accused for making offensive comments about the deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan.  Azhar Ahmed was charged under the Communications Act of 2003 and faces a racially aggravated charge.[18]  Azhar ranted about the deaths of these soldiers getting more attention than innocent families in Afghanistan that have been killed.  Azhar tells the soldiers to “DIE & go to HELL!  The LOWLIFE FOOKIN SCUM!”.[19]  While these may be offensive words to a soldier and their families, one could argue that this is not racially offensive and the young man should not be charged for racially aggravated words.

Comparison Between England and the United States

England in comparison to the United States on freedom of press has similarities and differences.  The freedom of press in England has evolved and improved since the times of the Licensing Acts, similar to the United States and the Alien and Sedition Acts.  The big difference between the two countries concerning freedom of press is the issue of libel.  Historically, the United States left the cases on libel up to the states to decide until New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964.  In this case the court sets a new precedent not allowing public officials to silence their critics.  The court believes that the press has the right to criticize a public figure.  After this case, it has been very difficult for the plaintiff to prove actual malice and be awarded damages.  In England, libel cases are much easier to win.  A 2009 newspaper article claimed that libel cases were at a record high in Britain because celebrities use the British courts to silence their critics.  In 2009 alone, there were 298 defamation cases in England, and most of these were from foreigners.[20]  According to the Daily News article, many publishers cannot afford the cost of a libel trial, so they pay the damages to avoid the expensive trial.[21]  This suggests that the freedom of the press in the United States is much freer than in England.  In the United States, the press can freely criticize a public figure—a celebrity or public official, without worrying about defamation or a libel case.

Similar to freedom of the press, freedom of speech is freer in the United States than in England.  Although England promises freedom of expression under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, it is still very limited.  The big issue of inciting racial hatred in England has been an issue in the United States, too.  Brandenburg v. Ohio in 1969 demonstrates freedom of speech in the United States when Clarence Brandenburg, a KKK member said that all African-Americans should be sent back to Africa and spouting other racial hatred speech.  Brandenburg was convicted, but the USSC overturned his conviction.  Also, in the case R.A.V v. City of Saint Paul, a minor burned a cross in the fenced-in yard of an African-American family and was not convicted because it was freedom of expression.  In England, in 2010 a boy pleaded guilty to inciting racial hatred after he put a video on Youtube which showed a Black man getting hanged by the KKK.[22]  This suggests that the United States has more freedom when it comes to speech and expression then England does.


Since the Thirteen Colonies officially split with England in 1783, the United States have furthered freedom of speech, press and religion to her citizens.  United States citizens pride themselves on the First Amendment and the evolution of those freedoms during the past 236 years.  The United States has had ground breaking cases like New York Times v. Sullivan and Texas v. Johnson which expanded both freedom of speech and press.  England’s laws over personal freedoms have also evolved since the democratic Parliament has gained more power, but in comparison to the United States, the United States has greater freedom of speech, press and expression.

[1] “Reporters without Boarders 2009 Press Freedom Index World Map,” http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reporters_Without_Borders_2009_Press_Freedom_Rankings_Map.png

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anthony Lewis, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 1.

[5] Ibid

[6] Robert Trager, Joseph Russomanno and Susan Dente Ross, The Law of Journalism and Mass Communications (Washington DC:  CQ Press, 2012), 54.

[7] Lewis, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, 2

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Tom Crone, Law and the Media (Oxford: Focal Press, 1995), 1.

[11] Marlene Arnold Nicholson, “McLibel: A Case Study in English Defamation Law” Wisconsin International Law Journal (2000), accesses March 4, 2012.

[12] “UK government abolishes seditious libel and criminal defamation” July 13, 2009 http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/11311.html

[14] Trager, Russomanno and Ross, Law of Journalism and Mass Communication, 54.

[16] Crone, Law and Media, 169.

[17] Vikrim Dodd, “Man guilty of inciting race hate at protest,” The Guardian, November 9, 2006, accessed April 4 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2006/nov/10/race.muhammadcartoons

[19] “How can insulting soldiers be “racially aggravated”?” March 13, 2012, http://blog.indexoncensorship.org/2012/03/13/facebook-offence-azhar-ahmed/

[20] James Robinson, “Libel cases rise to 10-year high” The Guardian October 11, 2010, accessed April 4, 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/oct/11/libel-high-court

[21] Steve Doughty, “Libel cases at record high as the rich and famous use British courts to silence their critics” Mail Online November 20, 2009, accessed April 3, 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1229659/Libel-cases-record-high-rich-famous-use-British-courts-silence-critics.html

[22] “Teenager admits incitement to racial hatred over YouTube videos” February 17, 2010, http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/press_releases/teenager_admits_incitement_to_racial_hatred/

Flag photo courtesy of Wikipedia and permitted under the Creative Commons


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