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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Mar-18 > Britain needs free speech

Britain needs free speech

And here’s how we can get it

Four years ago, under the watchful glare of technicians from GCHQ, Guardian journalists destroyed computers used to store the top-secret documents leaked to them by Edward Snowden. The then-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger had been required to set his staff to work on the hardware with angle-grinders and drills following government threats of an injunction. He explained his actions by reference to there being no right to free speech in English law. The bizarre episode led Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to call for the UK to adopt a US-style “First Amendment,” the free-speech clause in the American constitution, to protect whistleblowers.

I have a special, personal interest in such suggestions since, during the Leveson Inquiry into the culture and practices of the press, I was involved in drafting a sort of British equivalent to the First Amendment (see opposite). Had it ever been implemented, it would have required public authorities to uphold freedom of the press. But the incident in the Guardian basement reminded everybody of the obvious truth: governments find the temptations of censorship difficult to resist. This raises the question of how, in legal terms, speech can be properly protected.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s March issue: A series of writers turn their thoughts to the developing war over words in the UK and the US. Lionel Shriver, Afua Hirsch, Simon Lancaster, Hugh Tomlinson, Tom Clark and two students ask if free expression is truly compromised? What’s really going on in our universities? And what do voters think? Elsewhere in the issue: Michael Ignatieff questions why today’s left-wing leaders can’t live up to the high mark set by FDR, Sameer Rahim shows how western powers have been trying to dictate what Islam should be, and Mary Beard asks “How do we look?” as our perceptions of what is beautiful have changes over the centuries.