The slow march forward of free speech in Britain continues today as the arcane laws of sedition and criminal libel are abolished. The laws, which date from the time of the Star Chamber, were used against John Wilkes to prevent him from reporting on parliament and against Thomas Paine to punish him for his anti-monarchist Rights of Man.
They may have fallen largely into disuse since (the last sedition case in Britain was over Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses) but their symbolic force remains considerable. As Geoffrey Robertson QC observed: “This law is still used throughout the Commonwealth by repressive governments to jail their opponents. Its abolition here ensures that those governments can no longer use the excuse that they are merely following British law.”
Gambia, for instance, has often pointed to UK law when defending its prosecution of individuals for sedition. Six journalists in the country were recently convicted of sedition for calling on the president to admit to long-suspected state involvement in the murder of the newspaper editor Deyda Hydara. The abolition of the laws robs despots worldwide of one of their prime justifications for libel suits.
With the move coming just over a year after the abolition of the blasphemy law, perhaps we can, for once, be optimistic about the cause of free expression.