Freedom of Expression: Essential Principles

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
: the right to voice opinions in common.

Meaning and Scope 

Freedom of expression is 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 indubitably one of the basic foundations of democracy — a core freedom without which democracy could not exist. 

The term “freedom of expression” is quite broad. It encompasses freedom of speech and media, but also freedom of thought, conscience, cultural expression and intellectual inquiry. Freedom of expression guarantees everyone's right to speak and write openly without state interference, including the right to criticize the injustices, illegal activities, and incompetence of the government without fear of reprisal. Freedom of expression includes the right to inform the public, to offer opinions, and to advocate change, including changing the government, without undue restriction. Freedom of expression is also the right to voice opinions in common. It gives the majority and the minority each the chance to be heard and the minority the opportunity to become the majority. Most importantly, freedom of expression is the right to challenge any form of state tyranny by force of words and ideas. 

From Censorship to Universal Standard 

Until the 20th century, formal censorship — not freedom of expression — was the common practice of most states.

 Until the 20th century, formal censorship — not freedom of expression — was the practice of most governments. Autocrats frequently imprisoned critics, shut down the presses, forced authors into exile, or censored written and artistic works, all with the aim of preventing criticism, limiting debate, and maintaining or expanding their power. Intellectuals, artists, and public citizens tested the limits of accepted speech, often successfully, but many times with severe consequences.  

The struggle against licensing requirements in Great Britain in the 17th century, the adoption of the American Bill of Rights, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in the 18th century expanded the realms of independent expression and thought, especially in Europe and North America. These established freedom of expression as a fundamental right that governments should not restrict (see History). Still, in places lacking national independence or self-government, freedom of expression was and often still is generally restricted. 

The rise of totalitarian regimes, such as Adolf Hitler's Germany and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union brought into stark clarity the essential importance of freedom of expression. In such regimes, the state not only controlled expression by citizens, but also used the media to direct citizens' thoughts and opinions through propaganda, indoctrination, denunciation, repression, and enforced social conformity. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, freedom of expression became a core and broad international human rights standard. It was encoded in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without
and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

As Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press annual report notes, this standard is practiced in the breach by a growing number of countries in the world today (it lists 130 "partly free" or "not free" countries in its 2016 report, representing 88 percent of the world's population).

Freedom of Expression in Democracies 

In democracies, freedom of expression is essential for citizens to participate in politics and society. The theory and even most practices involving freedom of expression are clear. Media, individual citizens, organizations, politicians, lobbyists, corporations, and trade unions all have the general right to speak or publish information and express opinions and views. The state should not limit that right unnecessarily, whether through licensing requirements or restricting access to various physical or virtual methods of dissemination. 

Still, as with all freedoms, there is debate as to whether the state can or should place certain limits on individual or group expression, for example to restrict hate speech, explicit sexual material, or publishing sensitive national security information. There are generally laws against printing false or defamatory information about an individual or group, but questions are constant about how to define such information.  There are also questions as to how to balance between the protection of intellectual property and the right to disseminate ideas and opinions freely. Among many others. Should a democratic society have laws to protect against individuals or groups aiming to destroy political freedoms or seeking to create political chaos? Should spending in political campaigns or should there be unlimited spending that allows the few with money to overwhelm the public with political messages? If publishing information puts people in danger, is there a right to publish such information? And if there are legitimate restrictions to protect the public from dangerous speech, how does the state define what constitutes danger? Do bans on forms of religious expression (such as face coverings for women) transgress free speech rights and freedom of religion?  These issues are continually debated within the political, social, and judicial life of democratic societies and form part of the history and evolution of freedom of expression. Today, those debates have been complicated by new technologies in which digital information has supplemented (and in many cases supplanted) the printed word (see e.g. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Net Report in Resources). 

Most free speech advocates and organizations seek to minimize . . . prohibitions on free expression, arguing that any restrictions lead to more restrictions.

In democracies, the limits and propriety of free expression vary. The United States has generally expanded the realm of free speech and restricted limits on it (see History). France prohibits hate speech, denial of the Holocaust, and denial of the genocide of Armenians in 1915–16. Germany limits the propagation of Nazi ideology and symbols and bans parties espousing Nazism, although this has not prevented the rise of far-right parties that draw on Nazi symbolism and messages. Many other countries prohibit various forms of hate speech. Electoral democracies like Turkey and Indonesia have blasphemy laws forbidding the mocking of Islam or the Prophet Muhammad (see country studies). Many countries have some form of defamation law preventing the publishing of lies that damage the reputation of an individual or an institution, as well as laws limiting speech to protect public order and restricting the publication of explicit sexual material. Most free speech advocates and organizations seek to minimize such prohibitions on free expression, arguing that any restrictions lead to more restrictions (see, for example, “The Meddler’s Itch,” by Rony Koven in Resources). Generally, democracies act to expand freedom of expression, especially in political speech, rather than to limit it. Debates continue in free countries on key issues where restrictions are applied, but the existence of such debates is one of the enduring distinctions between democracy and dictatorship.