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Conflict Between Privacy and Freedom of Speech

By: Matthew Strawbridge - Updated: 2 Oct 2018 | comments*Discuss
Freedom Right Privacy Public Expression

The second section of the European Convention on Human Rights sets out the freedoms that citizens should have. There are many of these, including freedom from torture and slavery and from retrospective punishment for an act that was not illegal when it was performed.

Of particular interest are the articles relating to privacy (Article 8) and to freedom of expression (Article 10). It’s easy to imagine situations in which these two freedoms could come into conflict. The rest of this article explores this possibility and how the conflict can be prevented.

Freedom of Speech

Most people would agree that freedom of speech, or freedom of expression in general, is a necessity. Societies that have very strict controls about what their citizens can write or say, typically in order to try to control what they think, are oppressive and we should be vigilant against policies that could take us down this route ourselves.

However, it would be anarchy if there were no rules at all about what people can say or do. The freedom of expression of one person should not be allowed to cause harm to some other person. This is why, for example, there are laws against expressing racial and religious hatred.


A non-permanent defamation of an individual or organisation is called slander. In other words, if one person speaks a lie about another person, causing harm to that person’s reputation, then slander has occurred.

The freedom of expression does not allow people to cause damage to others by spreading false gossip about their character or activities.


Simply put, libel is the same but in recorded form. When newspapers or magazines are brought before the courts, for allegedly invading someone’s privacy (typically that of a celebrity) they are answering charges of libel.

Such an action typically has a wider audience than a slanderous one. It is also easier to prove. If someone tells a lie about you to someone else, you would find it very difficult to prove that the alleged conversation actually took place and even harder to convince a court what was said. If you have been libelled, in contrast, the facts about what was disclosed and to whom are generally not in question. Such a case instead revolves around whether what was said was untrue and whether its disclosure can be said to have been in the public interest.

The Public Interest

Sometimes the interest of the wider population can be seen to outweigh the interest of an individual. For example, if a judge is discovered by a tabloid newspaper to have had a relationship with a defendant that they subsequently tried, exposing the conflict of interest should reasonably take precedence over the rights of the judge and the defendant to keep their actions confidential. In contrast, if pictures of a celebrity’s holiday on a private island are published, the claim that these were in the public interest would be more difficult to defend.

The Issue of Privacy

When our rights come into conflict, it can be difficult to decide how the matter should be resolved. However, when someone expressing themselves harms someone else’s privacy, the right to confidentiality of the injured party should generally take precedence. There must be extenuating circumstances for this not to be the case, such as issues of national security or genuine public interest.

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A colleague has told three staff members my true age - something I never tell anyone They have said I am jealous and want to be their age - they are 3 years my junior Is there anything I can do about this as I feel humiliated and my privacy invaded
Buns - 2-Oct-18 @ 3:04 PM
My manager disclosed my DBS in full details to colleagues at work
Blake - 28-Sep-18 @ 11:04 AM
@Pegs - you don't stand anywhere. If you don't want something to be seen - don't put it out there, simple. If your employer has got hold of the messages, you can't undo the fact that your employer had read the messages. If you were doing it in work time, then your employer has every right to haul you in.
AiV - 5-Mar-18 @ 1:52 PM
A few of us recently got into trouble for talking on a private messenger group (about 20 collegues) regarding snow days. One member of group has shown our boss and my boss has printed it out and sent it to governors. It was all jokes, us saying we hope we can stay in bed etc. Baring in mind we have never been late, didn't say we would not go in etc(group only started as we didn't know what was going on)! I feel invaded - I'd also put info about my husband and children on there and assumed it would go no further than those in private group. Where do i stand with this?
Pegs - 3-Mar-18 @ 8:06 AM
I have been done for a motoring offence. I chose to keep it to myself.. yet a colleague screenshot the charge in the papers and showed the entire workforce.
Sarah J Hitchon - 24-Jan-18 @ 8:56 PM
@Oz - thee' not much you can do really - because you can't stop the spread of rumours.
AJ - 19-Jan-18 @ 10:31 AM
Hi, I am currently on suspension pending investigation. There has been no disciplinary action. A colleague has told a friend outside the company who has told other people and word has spread. Where do I stand from a data protection pointcof view please?
Oz - 18-Jan-18 @ 3:17 PM
@Caroline - it depends upon whether you (as the person who overheard the conversation) wishes to report it to your supervisor's higher. There's no guarantee the supervisor would be given a disciplinary or a warning, it depends on whether the powers above think it is out of line. I don't think it's a sackable offence, more a rap on the knuckles type of an offence.
Jan78 - 3-Oct-17 @ 9:38 AM
I over heard my manager talk openly to two supervisors about an employee that has worked there for 17years. Saying why she wasn't in due to stress although she had a week off and slagged her of in an open office. How does that stand, is that against data protection can the manger have adisciplinary? Thank you
Caroline - 2-Oct-17 @ 1:03 AM
@Tulip - of course you can raise the emails with HR, especially if you feel you have been treated unfairly and it is not part of a phased return to work. If you're signed off sick - you are SICK. Sam.
SLP8/88 - 30-Jan-17 @ 10:00 AM
I have am currently on sick leave. I had a previous absence in December due to a progressive condition which is covered by the Equality Act and which my employers are aware of. My boss has reacted to my current absence by emailing HR and his manager saying that I am unreliable etc and has also said that I have had absences that I have not. He has contacted me whilst on sick leave asking me to do work for him. I'm planning on seeing HR when I return to work. Can I raise the issue of the emails that I know he has sent? They are factually incorrect and unfair.
Tulip - 29-Jan-17 @ 8:05 AM
my wife is employed as a deputy manager. contracted to do 37.5hrs a week.Any hours done over and above are paid as overtime.Recently had a misunderstanding with her manager . The manager without consultation reduced her hours to 36hrs per week and does not give her overtime while other employees have it without requesting. Come month end she receives her full wages. Recently the manager took my wife`s payslip to her subordinate, showed him and asked if my wife deserved amount reflected on payslip. she has been telling everyone that my wife earns more-than her and is always sarcastically quoting my wife`s wages to other employees. Is this not bullying andbreach of employee privacy. Please help
nil - 28-Sep-14 @ 8:27 PM
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