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Online exhibits: Freedom of Speech and Belief

The freedoms to believe, say and write what we want are among our most cherished rights. They are also, perhaps, the most subversive and have often been limited by government, courts or church.

For many centuries, men and women belonging to sects or religions not sanctioned by the state had to fight for the right to worship in their own way. Social radicals and reformers could be imprisoned for sedition and their writings banned. This section explores how much our modern freedoms owe to their struggles.

These freedoms go to the heart of how we see ourselves and our society. It is not surprising, then, that the inevitable tensions between freedoms of speech and belief, the right to know and security, privacy and public order, can provoke angry debate.

Some significant stops on the route of Freedom of Speech and Belief

1290 Edward I expels all Jews from England
1534 Act of Supremacy makes Henry VIII head of English church
1611 King James Bible published
1643 Licensing Order controlling printing issued
1644 John Milton's Areopagitica
1656 Petition to Cromwell for Jewish rights in England
1673 Test Act excludes Catholics from public office
1689 Act of Toleration extends freedom of worship to nonconformists
1763 Radical journalist John Wilkes arrested for criticising the king
1774 Parliamentary Register, forerunner of Hansard, first published
1780 Gordon Riots see public protests against pro-Catholic legislation
1829 Catholic Emancipation Act allows Catholics to have a seat in Parliament
1858 Jewish Relief Act allows Jews to have a seat in Parliament
1889 Official Secrets Act (amended 1911, 1920, 1989)
1911 J Gott imprisoned for blasphemy
1968 Censorship of plays by Lord Chamberlain ends
1971 Oz obscenity trial at Old Bailey
1999 Freedom of Information Act

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