Free speech and burning poppies

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Yesterday was Remembrance Day. Today, it is reported that Kent Police have arrested a man for posting an image of a burning poppy on a social networking site. This raises fundamental questions about the extent to which one person’s freedom of expression should be restricted because its exercise may cause others to be offended.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights enshrines the right to freedom of expression in law, but at the same time acknowledges that it may be restricted if this is necessary to uphold other values, including the “rights of others”. The key questions concern (on the one hand) the extent to which others have a “right” not to be offended and (on the other hand) how valuable the freedom of expression in question is. (For instance, “political speech” – that is, commentary, whether spoken, written or artistic, on political matters – is generally regarded as especially valuable.)

This is an issue that the US Supreme Court has addressed on several occasions when considering whether the right to free speech in the First Amendment to the US Constitution precludes laws that ban the burning of the American flag – an act that may be perceived in the US to disclose a lack of patriotism equivalent to that indicated by the burning of a poppy in the UK. If you want to read more about this issue, start with the website of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has a useful collection of resources on flag desecration.

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