Tribunal Emphasises Free Speech in Holding the Line Between Rival Charities


The objectives and beliefs espoused by one charity may starkly conflict with those of another. So long as they do not overstep the mark of legitimate free speech and democratic debate, however, the Charity Commission is empowered to make room for both of them. The First-tier Tribunal (FTT) powerfully made that point in a guideline case.

A charity sought to appeal to the FTT against the Charity Commission’s decision to grant charitable status to an organisation whose views on certain issues of heated public debate were very different from its own. The charity alleged, amongst other things, that the organisation was focused on campaigning against it and destroying its reputation and sources of funding. That was denied by the organisation, which said that it was facilitating public debate by presenting another point of view.

The charity argued that the organisation had in the past strayed beyond the boundaries of civilised debate. Excerpts from the Charity Commission’s decision could, the FTT acknowledged, be seen to reflect similar, well-founded concerns. It was, however, important to distinguish between the organisation’s actions and those of its supporters, who did not speak on its behalf.

The FTT had no doubt as to the sincerity of the charity’s views and the depth of its disagreement with the organisation. It noted, however, that charitable status does not come with any guarantees of funding nor any freedom from criticism or debate. It is no part of the Charity Commission’s function to tell people what to think or to regulate public debate in a context where there are deeply held, sincere beliefs on all sides of a discussion. It was a fundamental precept of democracy that open debate will in time culminate in the triumph of truth over falsity.

Public scrutiny of the organisation’s activities, combined with prompt and effective regulation by the Charity Commission, would deter it from crossing the line into what is inconsistent with the law or the regulatory regime under which all charities must operate. If the organisation stepped over that line in the future, the charity would have grounds on which to complain to the Charity Commission.

In dismissing the charity’s appeal, the FTT ruled that it had no legal standing to challenge the Charity Commission’s decision, taken under Section 30 of the Charities Act 2011, to register the organisation as a charity. The fact that the charity and its supporters had been affected emotionally or socially by the decision was insufficient to provide such standing. Ultimately, the Charity Commission’s decision was about the organisation and was neither about the charity nor its work.

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