Freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously with freedom of speech and includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used, including the Internet, so long as expression respects the rights of others. Freedom of expression may also refer to the right to privacy, which is also a recognized human right. State-sponsored censorship, monitoring, and surveillance of the Internet may threaten the enjoyment of these rights.
Freedom of expression is essential to democracy. Citizens cannot effectively exercise their right to vote or take part in public decision-making if they lack access to information or ideas and cannot freely express their views. Freedom of expression is thus not only important for individual dignity, but also to meaningful civic participation and freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Violations of freedom of expression often go hand in hand with other violations, in particular the right to freedom of information, association, and assembly. For example, restrictions on journalists or news organizations to impartially report information prevent individuals from being able to develop well-informed opinions.
Relevant Human Rights Agreements
In its very first session in 1946, before any human rights declarations or treaties had been adopted, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 59(I) stating “Freedom of information is a fundamental human right and … the touchstone of all the freedoms to which the United Nations is consecrated.”
Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, 1948) articulates the right to freedom of expression: Everyone has the rights to the freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through and media and regardless of frontiers.
Article 29 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966) reiterates these two aspects of freedom of expression and also declares that restrictions on the freedom of expression and access to information can only be limited in certain circumstances:
- For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
- For the protection of national security or of public order … or of public health or morals.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (Children’s Convention, CRC, 1989) extends these rights to children on the basis of their evolving capacity:
- “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion” (Article 14)
- “access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources” (Article 17)
Examples of violations of freedom of expression
- Criminal punishment for the expression of criticism of one’s government
- Criminal punishment for the expression of one’s opinions on social issues (some countries prohibit “hate speech” in order to prevent conflict between different ethnic, religious, or other groups. There is debate as to whether such laws have been effective and whether they may be restricted under paragraph 3 of the ICCPR.)
- Government ownership of media likely makes it difficult or impossible for journalists to express criticisms of that government
- Limits on the free reporting of information of journalists, whether through legal limitations or extralegal forms of harassment
- Overly extensive government secrecy about its actions that prevent the public from being properly informed.
In the United States freedom of expression is incorporated into the First Amendment to the US Constitution and many state constitutions and state and federal laws.
Related Human Rights Documents
 For a more detailed discussion of freedom of expression, see Understanding Human Rights: Manual on Human Rights Education, p. 381: http://www.etc-graz.at/typo3/fileadmin/user_upload/ETC-Hauptseite/manual/versionen/english_3rd_edition/Manual_2012_FINAL.pdf.