Tech & Rights

Here's Why Your Free Speech Is So Important

Freedom of speech is necessary to hold governments to account, but it is under threat in Europe. Here’s why this right is so important, and what Liberties is doing to protect it.

by LibertiesEU

What is freedom of speech?

We communicate by speaking, writing, dressing, protesting and in so many other ways. Communication is an important part of our lives, and the level of freedom to communicate has a significant impact on our society and on the strength of our democracy. Freedom of speech is essentially our right to communicate about political issues. This means that any communication that has relevance for the public, such as comments on government actions, criticisms of public officials or demands for certain rights, is protected by the right to freedom of speech.

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At Liberties, we work to safeguard the right to freedom of speech both online and offline. Although freedom of speech is a wide-ranging basic human right, it is not unlimited. Most of our rights have to be balanced against each other, which means one person cannot claim free speech protection to incite hatred against others or put them in danger. That’s why hate speech and child pornography are not protected as free speech. Other limitations, such as copyrighted material or personal information, define free speech narrowly and proportionately. Copyright protection serves mostly the interest of the creator. No one can publish Harry Potter under their own name or make it into a movie without the permission of the author, but simple quotations or using material for the purpose of education is usually excepted from copyright protection. The right to privacy also limits free speech. In most cases, it is forbidden to publish sensitive private information – the right to keep your health record private overrules free speech interests, for example. This balance can only be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Why are we working on this topic?

Some EU governments are not respecting freedom of speech. Some of them put pressure on public service media to report in a way that is biased in favour of the government. Some of them over-regulate the press, be it print, broadcasting or online. Certain content requirements put heavy burdens on media services, such as the obligation to cover current affairs, or the requirement that a certain percentage of their programming or videos have to be European works. These requirements are valid for public service media, but small companies and specialized websites can’t afford them. Over-regulation limits the number of voices, and this is dangerous for democracy.

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There are other examples of undue limits on free press. The media helps to hold politicians and governments to account. But they depend on sources who sometimes have to break the rules that prevent them from revealing corruption or other malpractice. We call these people whistleblowers. They often end up getting prosecuted instead of the people whom they expose. If we want the media to properly inform the public, then we have to protect its sources. There are also limitations on recording police officers in action or recording parliamentary debates, both of which are important to ensure accountability to the public.

Further, the EU itself puts limits on free speech. The proposed amendments to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the Copyright Directive and the Code of Conduct on countering illegal online hate speech all fail to uphold freedom of speech. The Audiovisual Media Services Directive puts heavy content requirements on online services, be that the online press or platforms like YouTube. The Copyright Directive puts censoring requirements on internet companies by requiring them take down or block content for copyright reasons without proper debate with the user, while the Code of Conduct basically puts internet companies in charge of policing uploaded content. To oblige companies such as Facebook or Google to censor content is not only a heavy burden, but it is also a non-transparent solution for limiting free speech. For business entities, the protection of fundamental rights is not of primary importance, so when it comes to choosing between the business interest to eliminate certain content and the conformity to the freedom of speech, they tend to opt for the former, namely to remove legally risky content.

How are we working on this topic?

Liberties’ aim is for EU institutions and national governments to introduce measures that help create an environment where free speech and free press can proliferate. This includes influencing reforms to regulations such as the Audiovisual Media Services Directive, the Code of Conduct and the Copyright Directive. The Code of Conduct with regard to private companies should be redrafted with the help of free speech advocates and the ongoing debate over the copyright reform should strike a proper balance between freedom of speech and the right of the copyright holder. Further, changes are needed to the Audiovisual Media Services Directive with regard to the content requirements. We are of the opinion that the EU should adopt a directive on whistleblower protection.

Over-regulation should be eliminated both at EU and national level. Liberties, together with its member organisations, will try to influence both national and EU decision-makers to eliminate undue intervention by governments and authorities.

In the coming year, Liberties will launch online public education campaigns concerning the rights of journalists and their sources, online free speech cases and the right to record public officials at work.

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