What is freedom of expression?

Everyone has the right to communicate his or her opinions and ideas and share information in whatever form. In human rights this is called freedom of expression. It prohibits the state and other people in society from censorship and it can be restricted for only very serious reasons.

Democracy

Freedom of expression is an important human right which is essential for a society to be democratic. It enables the free exchange of ideas, opinions and information and thus allows members of society to form their own opinions on issues of public importance. Freedom of expression serves public debate and supports a free and independent press, informed citizenship and the transparent functioning of the state.

Scope

Freedom of expression protects almost all the ways in which you can express yourself, regardless of the content or tone of your message. It covers all:

  • spaces (public and private)
  • purposes (political, artistic and commercial)
  • forms (words, pictures and sounds)
  • media (films, cartoons, radio, television and social media)

example You might be writing a comment to an article on an internet portal, playing a song in public place, displaying an advertisement on a street or wearing a t-shirt expressing a certain idea.

Freedom of expression protects you from unjustified restrictions of your expressions, but it does not guarantee you access to the means for expressing your ideas.

example A magazine or internet portal can refuse to publish your article or comment and a social media company might remove a comment.

Restrictions

The right to freedom of expression is very broad, but it has limits and can be restricted. This is when the freedom of expression of one person violates the rights of another person or the values of society as a whole. In situations like these, the state can lawfully restrict or punish expressions that cause harm. Examples of this are violations of private lifedefamationhate speech, obscenity, pornography, public order, national security, classified information, trade secrets or copyright violations.
 
Any measures that restrict freedom of expression must be stated in law, can only be applied for valid reasons (legitimate aim) and must be an exception based on the individual situation.

Read more about lawful restrictions and evaluation criteria.

Hate speech

Freedom of expression has limits and it does not cover all expressions. Hate speech is not protected by freedom of expression and is a punishable offence. Hate speech is any form of incitement, the spreading or justification of hate and violence against an individual or a group of people based on certain attributes, such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, beliefs or health condition. Hate speech is contrary to the basic values of a democratic society and the state can, therefore, lawfully prevent or punish it.

Read more about hate speech.

Media freedom

Freedom of expression gives special rights and duties to the media. The media inform society on matters of public interest and create an important platform for public scrutiny, debate and reflection. Therefore, independent media and quality journalism are considered to be the “watchdog” of a democratic society.

Because of this role, human rights guarantee journalists and media additional rights and safeguards in carrying out their tasks. For example, journalistic sources have special protection when information on issues of public interest is gathered and reported. Journalists cannot be forced to reveal their sources except when ordered by a court.

Read more about media freedom.

Access to information

Freedom of expression also applies to the opportunity to freely share and receive any information you might be interested in. For example, by reading a particular newspaper or website, listening to a radio programme or watching a TV station. This also includes a citizen’s right to access both public, and under certain conditions, restricted information that state institutions possess as well.

Read more about access to information.

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