The Supreme Court ruling to allow publication of an autobiography by the pianist James Rhodes is an important fillip to freedom of expression at a time when the principle seems regularly threatened.
Mr Rhodes suffered years of sexual abuse as a child and subsequently experienced psychological torment which culminated in a suicide attempt. Having found a degree of recovery through music, Mr Rhodes decided to chronicle his lifetime of struggle in a memoir, but encountered opposition from his former wife, who expressed concern at its potential impact on their son.
It is not hard to feel sympathy for her viewpoint. The boy, who lives with his mother outside the UK, has been unaware of his father’s traumatic past and may indeed find the revelations harrowing. Nevertheless, as Mr Rhodes himself argued, to maintain the injunction against publication would have sent entirely the wrong message to the victims of abuse, who are all too often silenced by their abusers. It would also have given succour to all who seek to stifle the telling of inconvenient truths.
The Independent has recently reported on the extent to which the so-called “Right to be Forgotten” ruling in the European Court of Justice has been used to remove accurate media reports from Google search results. Online news publishers now receive aggressive letters every week from lawyers demanding that articles about their clients be removed completely from public view, even though the truth of the material is not disputed.
The judgment is a reminder that there is no general legal basis for preventing the publication of information simply because it might distress a third party. The remarks by the Supreme Court judges Lady Hale and Lady Toulson should, indeed, be regarded as a textbook defence of free speech: “Freedom to report the truth is a basic right to which the law gives a very high level of protection”. Those who would suppress that freedom should take note.