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Freedom of Expression: Essential Principles

"This is true liberty, when free-born men, having to advise the public, may speak free."
Euripides (480–406 BC)

"Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."
John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644

"The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write and print with freedom..."
French National Assembly, Declaration of the Rights of Man, August 26, 1789


Freedom of expression in action

Freedom of expression could be considered one of the most fundamental of all freedoms. While it is of dubious value to rate one freedom over another, freedom of expression is a basic foundation of democracy—it is a core freedom, without which democracy could not exist. The term encompasses not only freedom of speech and media, but also freedom of thought, culture, and intellectual inquiry. Freedom of expression guarantees everyone's right to speak and write openly without state interference, including the right to criticize injustices, illegal activities, and incompetencies. It guarantees the right to inform the public and to offer opinions of any kind, to advocate change, to give the minority the opportunity to be heard and become the majority, and to challenge the rise of state tyranny by force of words.

Until the 20th century, formal censorship— not freedom of expression— was the common practice of most states. Autocrats frequently imprisoned critics, shut down the presses, forced authors into exile, or censored written and artistic works. The struggle against licensing requirements in Great Britain in the 17th century, the American Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man expanded standards of freedom in a way that inspired new realms of independent expression and thought, especially in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also in other parts of the world.Still, in places lacking independence or self-government, freedom of expression has generally been at risk.

Until the 20th century, formal censorship— not freedom of expression— was the common practice of most states.
But the full importance of freedom of expression could perhaps be appreciated only with the rise of totalitarian regimes, such as Adolf Hitler's Germany and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union, among others.


Journalists encounter teargas attacks during the December 2007 riots in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by Eleanor Marchant
In such regimes, the state not only exerted full control over expression, it also used the media to direct citizens' thoughts and opinions through propaganda, indoctrination, denunciation, and social conformity. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, freedom of expression joined the realm of core freedoms that are now protected as universal standards (Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Within democracies, freedom of expression remains controversial: Should there be restrictions on hate speech or obscenities, or on publishing sensitive national security information? But, examining freedom of expression in light of the history of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, past and present, helps place many of these debates in greater perspective and provides greater understanding of the struggle for freedom of expression.