21 May 2015
On 20 May the Supreme Court overturned an injunction preventing the publication of a memoir by classical pianist James Rhodes. The SoA welcomes this as a victory for freedom of expression and a very clear statement by the courts that people have the right to tell their own story in their own words, even if others may be distressed (or even psychologically injured) by reading it.
Lord Toulson, one of the Justices in the case, said:
Freedom to report the truth is a basic right to which the law gives a very high level of protection. […] The right to report the truth is justification in itself. That is not to say that the right of disclosure is absolute, for a person may owe a duty to treat information as private or confidential. But there is no general law prohibiting the publication of facts which will cause distress to another, even if that is the person’s intention. […] A right to convey information to the public carries with it a right to choose the language in which it is expressed in order to convey the information most effectively.
Lord Neuberger, Supreme Court President, went even further in protecting the right to publish creative works, both fiction and non-fiction when he said:
While I agree that many people would regard the book as being in some respects in the public interest, it is not necessary to decide this appeal on that ground.
Unless it is necessary to do so, I am unenthusiastic about deciding whether a book, or any other work, should be published by reference to a judge’s assessment of the importance of the publication to the public or even to the writer. In the present case, I do not consider that it would make any difference if the experiences which the defendant describes could be shown to have been invented, or if the book had been written as a novel by someone who had not been sexually abused. It is true that the book contained material which some people might find offensive, in terms of what was described and how it was expressed, but ‘free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence’ – see Redmond-Bate v Director of Public Prosecutions (1999) 7 BHRC 375, para 20, per Sedley LJ. As he memorably added, ‘freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having’.