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May 20, 2011 / David Woodford

The balance between privacy and freedom of speach

Privacy and freedom of speech are two things I strongly believe in. The problem is that they seem incompatible, hence the debate over injunctions and super injunctions.

If we place legal restrictions on what can be published then clearly we are on a slippery slop to censorship. In the case of injunctions we give someone (a judge) the power to decide what is and what isn’t allowed to be published. Once a person, or a group of people, has this power they can then censor attempts to report upon their failings, stopping them from being accountable.

[As an aside super injunctions are clearly wrong as they don’t allow us to even know that there is someone to be held to account. Without knowing that an action has even taken place how can judge whether or not it was to correct course of action or whether the person who created was abusing a position of power.]

On the other hand I believe strongly in the right to privacy. It would be hypocritical to complain about websites like facebook and gooogle collecting too much information on us and then allowing newspapers to run stories that invade that same privacy of celebrities. Of course you can argue that celebrities know this is what is going to happen when they choose to that life but, other people such as politicians are also subjected to the same treatment. I don’t want to live in a society where people can’t stand up for what they believe, my becoming a politician, without an unconstructive intrusion into their private life. This would damage democracy and greatly distort the representation of the public.

The easiest solution would be for people to stop buying newspapers when they run these sorts of stories, but it seems a large number of people do care more about a politicians or an athletes private life than their policies or sport. This means that we do need some form of compromise in the law.

The best solution would be some form of privacy law that doesn’t require a court order to be taken out. Ideally this privacy law would also apply to data collected by websites and the goverment as well as to what newspapers can publish. Instead of taking out an injunction, people who feel that they have been denied their privacy can take complain to the police and prosecute the person breaching their privacy. This would mean that everyone has access to privacy, not just those who can afford the lawyers to pay for an injunction.

The additional benefit is that we will be able to hold the use of the law to account as we would know precisely what has been restricted. Since cases will only go to court after the privacy has been breached the case can be freely reported upon. The decision as to whether or not someones privacy has been broken would be made by a jury so it would represent what the public think is fair rather than a single judge.

In a future post I might consider what is considered private and also the forms of communication it should apply to.

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