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.
Case summary

Sunday Times v. United Kingdom (No 1)


European Court of Human Rights
26 April 1979

Facts
450 children were born in the 1960s suffering from severe deformities due to the drugs their mothers had been taken during pregnancy. A number of parents brought action against the drug company, and almost all cases were settled. The applicant newspaper, The Sunday Times, published an article criticizing settlement proposals between the drug company and the parents of children and announced that a future article would trace how the tragedy occurred. Subsequently an injunction was issued restraining publication of the future article, as it would constitute contempt of court. The public debate on the issue ensued and articles in other newspapers referring to issues similar to those the future article in the applicant\'s newspaper would have addressed were published. However, no further contempt proceedings were instituted.

Complaint
The applicant newspaper claimed that the prohibition to publish the article had violated its right to freedom of expression.

Court’s ruling
The Court ruled that the prohibition was not necessary in a democratic society and thus the applicant’s freedom of expression had been violated.

The Court found that:

  • The injunction was prescribed by law:
  1. The injunction was based upon principles which constituted law, since they were formulated with a sufficient precision;
  2. The applicant could foresee that the publication of the draft article might not be in accordance with these principles. 
  • The legitimate aim of the injunction was to avoid “the trial by newspaper” and to maintain the authority of the judiciary.
  • As to the necessity of the injunction, the Court pointed out that:
  1. Freedom of expression protects also ideas and information that offend, shock or disturb;
  2. The press not only have a duty to inform public about the information which is of public interest, but the public also has a right to be properly informed;
  3. It is incumbent on mass media to impart also information and ideas concerning matters that come before the courts;
  4. The injunction was not necessary because:
    - Information regarding the disaster with the poisonous drugs from which several hundreds of persons had suffered was a matter of undisputed public concern;
    - The families of numerous victims of the tragedy had a vital interest in knowing all the underlying facts and the various possible solutions;
    - The proposed article was couched in moderate terms and did not present just one side of the evidence or claim.

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