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Opinion: Neil Lennon, the FA and Freedom of Speech

Are the FAs rules compatible with freedom of speech or just a farce?

In the words of Frank Turner: 'And I won't sit down. And I won't shut up.'
In the words of Frank Turner: 'And I won't sit down. And I won't shut up.'
Clint Hughes/Getty Images

Seeing our great leader Neil Lennon being charged by the FA for his spot on comments about the referee from the Queens Park Rangers match got me thinking.

Does the FA’s policy of clamping down on manager’s views on match officials interfere with their right to the freedom of expression?

Freedom of speech in the UK is protected via Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Now I know a number of you are considering clicking off at this point but don’t worry I am not going to bore you with much detail on this.

Article 10 sets out that everyone has the right to hold opinions and receive and impart information and ideas without interference. It is clear here that all Lennon is doing is holding an opinion and imparting it to anyone who cares to listen. So should he then be punished for doing so?

My view is a resounding no.

Lennon, and indeed any manager - not just that of Bolton Wanderers - has every right to voice his opinion in a public forum such as a post-match interview, and anything blocking him from doing so interferes with his right to freedom of expression.

Now I am not sure, despite having spent time studying the ECHR, whether or not Article 10 will apply to the FA in anyway, my instinct is no. So if Lennon is reading this, which I imagine he is with the international break he probably has nothing better to do with his time, then I am not suggesting he take this to the courts. But it still serves as a good and useful source for what freedom of expression should mean in the UK. That means I think it is fair to set it as the standard which the FA should aspire to reach in this regard.

After all we are all meant to have freedom of expression in a democratic society and people are constantly campaigning to protect that. And yet football managers’ views are stifled for no real reason other than the fact that the FA cannot get enough competent refs for the Football league.

Maybe rather than spending their time charging managers for being rightly enraged by the performance of their employees they should instead strive for better match day officials and give them the help that they need to make better decisions in game. Unless that happens this will not be the last time that managers get charged for comments made about match officials. And it certainly won’t be the last time that our lovable loose cannon Lennon goes off on a rant about terrible referees ruining games.

A further point here is that everyone else is allowed to say whatever they like about a referees performance. If Alan Shearer wants to criticise a ref on Match of the Day he is allowed to. He is not going to get in trouble. Garth Crooks went on a full on rant the other day about a ref on Final Score and was he punished, of course not.

It is the same for the everyday fan. No one does anything about the classic ‘the referee’s a wanker’ chant do they? This is in so many ways so much worse than a manager saying his piece, and yet a manager can’t do just that.

This means that charging Lennon will not stop the tide of people having a go at match day officials. It does not even put a dent into the problem. If that’s what the FA is looking to stop then surely they should clamp down on everyone and anyone who says that a referee was terrible.

There is also the fact that managers are only charged if they actually say something specific. If Lennon said in response to a question about a referee ‘I decline to comment because of what will happen’ or ‘what do you think?’ then in all likelihood he would be fine and not get fined. In saying either one of those things he would be essentially making exactly the same point about the quality of the referee as he did. The fact that he is not being specific about the incidents is the only real difference. So why does one get punished and not the other?

I don’t even know where to start with that question so I will leave it essentially unanswered as the honest truth is that there is no logical reason as to why in one situation you get let off and in the other you get a slap on the wrist.

In a society which is supposed to be built on the idea of freedom of expression and the idea that every individual has the right to voice their opinion these FA rules are not only out of place they are farcical and the sooner they are abolished the better.

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