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About free expression


Free expression is vital to humanity and the foundation of a free society. At the most basic level, without free expression ideas cannot be tested. Free speech creates the space for the exchange of ideas in the arts, literature, religion, academia, politics and science, and is essential for other rights such as freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly. Without this, individuals can’t make informed decisions and fully participate in society.

Index first cover

The first issue of Index on Censorship Magazine, 1972

Index on Censorship’s original founding principles state:

“All over the world censorship is being employed as an instrument of government… Freedom of expression is not self-perpetuating, but rather has to be maintained through the constant vigilance of those who care about it.”

– Index on Censorship magazine, 1972

The right to free expression
The most frequently referenced iteration of the right to free expression is the First Amendment of the Unites States constitution (1789), which states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The right to free speech is a universal human right enshrined in Article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1949), which states:

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

Shortly after the signing of the UDHR, in 1950, the European Convention on Human Rights defined the right to free expression:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.”

The Convention, however, offers several qualifications for this right. As well as allowing for the licensing of broadcast outlets, Article 10 also states:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

These qualifications suggest that the universal right is not absolute, so can be balanced against other rights such as the right to privacy and in certain limited cases, can be restricted. Index recognises this balance, but believes that other fundamental human rights can only be realised if the right to freedom of expression is protected. Definitions such as the right to free speech “within the law” (as is found in the African Charter on Human Rights and other documents) can be problematic, as the law cannot always be relied on to safeguard free speech.

Threats to freedom of expression
In democracies, free speech may on the whole be protected, but through unfair media regulation, archaic defamation laws or over-broad police powers, the chill on free speech continues. In the United Kingdom, limits can be placed on free expression by (among other restrictions) public order laws which criminalise “insulting” speech, and by the civil defamation law which has served to chill science writers, investigative journalists and political bloggers. Index speaks out on these and other issues and has been a leader of the campaign to change the libel law (www.libelreform.org).

The chill on free speech in authoritarian countries is absolute with journalists and artists threatened or killed and political dissidents disappearing in suspicious circumstances. Technology is making it easier for people to speak out in authoritarian countries, but also easier for these governments to spy on those who do.

While censorship may take different forms, and be proposed for different reasons, the importance of protecting free expression as a universal value for the benefit of humanity remains.