What is freedom of expression?

Aghan women hold up banners protesting in favour of freedom of expression

Since 1987, ARTICLE 19 has worked for a world where all people, everywhere, can express themselves freely.

Freedom of expression is the freedom for us all to express ourselves. It is the right to speak, to be heard, and to participate in political, artistic, and social life. It also includes the ‘right to know’: the right to seek, receive, and share information through any media.

When you share your views or seek out information, online or off, you’re exercising your right to freedom of expression.

When you criticise your government for not living up to its promises, you’re exercising your right to freedom of expression.

When you question or debate religious, political, social, or cultural practices, you’re exercising your right to freedom of expression.

When you attend a peaceful protest, or organise one, you’re exercising your right to freedom of expression.

When you create a work of art, you’re exercising your right to freedom of expression. 

When you comment on a news article – whether you’re supporting it or criticising it – you’re exercising your right to freedom of expression.

And when the journalist published that article, so was she. 

Why is freedom of expression important?

Freedom of expression is fundamental to political dissent, diverse cultural expression, creativity, and innovation, as well as the development of one’s personality through self-expression.

Freedom of expression enables dialogue, builds understanding, and increases public knowledge. When we can freely exchange ideas and information, our knowledge improves, which benefits our communities and societies.

Freedom of expression also enables us to question our governments, which helps to keep them accountable. Questioning and debate are healthy – they lead to better policies and more stable societies.

David Shankbonederivative: Parzi, CC BY 3.0

‘”You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged’

Kenan Malik, writer, lecturer and broadcaster

The problems we all face are complex. If we cannot freely exchange ideas and information, then we are all deprived of the potential solutions.

A foundational right

Freedom of expression is a foundational right, meaning it is essential for the enjoyment and protection of all human rights. 

With the right to freedom of expression, every person, every community, and every society can ask for the most fundamental things they need. 

Like water, food, shelter, and clean air. 

Healthcare, education for our kids, decent work, and fair wages.  

For the freedom to practise the faith of our choice or none, to love and marry whoever we want, and to stand in solidarity with those who suffer. 

And for rich and poor to be treated equally before the law. 

In other words, freedom of expression is the lifeblood of democracy.

Image: Metsavend, CC BY-SA 3.0

“‘Democracy is built on the right to dissent, on the right for people to hold opposing positions. Our societies need freedom of expression to protect us from the worst atrocities that governments can visit on their citizens.”

– Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist

Does freedom of expression mean we can say whatever we like?

While the right to freedom of expression is fundamental, it is not absolute. This means it can be limited in exceptional circumstances. 

It is vital that we distinguish between:

(a) speech that encourages violence and discrimination against people (e.g. intentional incitement to racial hatred), which should be prohibited; and 

(b) speech that criticises or challenges ideas or the status quo (e.g. criticising a government, nation, or religious idea), which should be protected – even if it is offensive or unpopular – because it lets us learn about different ideas and challenge those in power. 

David Shankbonederivative: Parzi, CC BY 3.0

‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

Salman Rushdie, novelist and professor

Religions, governments, and flags cannot be harmed – only people can. That’s why human rights protects people – not ideas, states, or religions.

Likewise, any restrictions on free speech should only protect people from harm, not governments from criticism.

And it’s people with the least power who need the most protection.

‘Censorship is a political tool and its advocates may cite religious orthodoxy or any other dogmatic belief to claim the moral high ground and silence or even murder those they disagree with.’

Jo Glanville, journalist

Who protects our right to freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression is protected under international law (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). 

This means that nearly every State in the world is obliged to protect the right to freedom of expression.

‘Politicians and public officials must create an enabling environment for freedom of expression, not diminish it’

2021 Joint Declaration of International Rapporteurs

But freedom of expression is so fundamental to each and every one of us – from civil society to journalists, educators, writers, artists, lawyers, and activists – that we all have an obligation to stand up for it.

Including you and I.

Image: Augustus Binu, CC BY-SA 3.0

“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

– Arundhati Roy, author

Find out more about freedom of expression

Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression  and Equality

Global Expression Report 2023 – a ranking of how free countries are 

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