We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.

Why must we be free to express ourselves?

Whole libraries are devoted to addressing this question. Here are four important arguments to start with:

1. Human self-fulfilment. The powers of speech and abstract thought distinguish human beings from other animals. If we cannot express our thoughts and feelings, we cannot realise our full, individual humanity.

2. Truth. We cannot get at the truth unless we are exposed to the relevant facts, opinions and arguments. Even false ones may contain a sliver of truth, or provoke us to clarify our own as we respond to them (see P3).

3. Good government. We cannot govern ourselves well unless we are exposed to, and can freely debate, the full range of views and policy alternatives within our society – and beyond it. Nor can we effectively control our government (see P4).

4. Living with difference. We live in a world in which everyone is becoming neighbours with everyone else, either physically, because we live in the same place, or virtually, through the internet and mobile devices. We therefore need to understand the ways in which our neighbours are different from us – and why those differences matter to them. To speak openly about all kinds of human difference, without coming to blows, is the best way of learning to live with diversity (see P52 and 6).

Article 19 – a (not quite) universal standard

Our first principle is a simplified version, in the “We” form, of Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That was elaborated in Article 19 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which also identifies various kinds of legitimate restriction on free expression. If you want to know more, there’s a remarkably good authoritative interpretation of Article 19 by the UN Human Rights Committee here.

Most states in the world have become parties to this, though sometimes with awkward little reservations in small print. China has signed but not ratified. Saudi Arabia and Burma have not even signed. Read our background analysis here.

In theory, the Covenant is legally binding on states that have both signed and ratified it. In practice, as we all know, many governments don’t live up to their solemn commitments most of the time and all governments don’t some of the time. Our first principle also means that we have a right to ask them why they’re violating this first principle.

For citizens of the 114 states that have signed the First Optional Protocol to the Covenant, there is a formal route to do this. If they get no redress at home private citizens can go directly to the UN Human Rights Committee, saying that their country has violated Article 19 of the Covenant. Interestingly, the countries who have not signed up to the First Optional Protocol include the United States and Britain.

In Europe, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights has similar wording. If you live in any of the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, you can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg when you think your free speech rights have been violated. Even bad European governments can be embarrassed by a Strasbourg court judgment; sometimes they mend their ways. The Americas, north and south, also have a court, but it’s much weaker, because its judgments are not binding on any national courts. Other continents have nothing to compare.

In addition, there are four international rapporteurs, for different regions. Currently they are Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Catalina Botero, Organisation of American States special rapporteur for freedom of expression; Dunja Mijatović, Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media; and Pansy Tlakula, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information.

Not just free but able…

We’ve added one vital word which doesn’t appear in any of those fine declarations: the word “able”. It’s all very well for you to be theoretically free to say what you like, but if the local gun-toters – be they mafia, secret police, violent Islamists or drug gangs – are going to kill you for saying it, then your freedom exists only in theory. It does not amount to much if you have no internet access. (Internet access for all is the great cause of Tim Berners-Lee, and his World Wide Web Consortium; more in P9.) It’s pretty limited if your country’s media are dominated by a few rich men, companies, or groups (see P4). Or if you don’t have access to sufficient information – or sufficient education to interpret that information and articulate your own views.

In other words – and this thought runs through all these principles – the reality of free expression is as much about power as about law. To have effective freedom of expression, you must be empowered as well as entitled. The real difficulty is working out what you really need to be “able” to receive and impart information and ideas, not just theoretically free to do so. Even more difficult is to achieve it.

What is “speech”? Or “expression”?

When we say “free speech debate”, that’s shorthand. By “speech” or “expression” we mean a whole range of forms of expression: writing, pictures, songs, video, film, flags (and burning flags), forms of dress like the headscarf, badges, theatrical performances, religious rites and symbols, hunger strikes, demonstrations and more. Free speech also means your right to express yourself by not speaking – like the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the US who declined to swear the oath of allegiance, because they considered it against their religion.

And in your own language…

Being free to express yourself also means being able to use your own language. A state, organisation or company can reasonably require its citizens, members or employees to learn a common language and use it in certain contexts. It may even be two official languages, as in Canada. It cannot reasonably compel people not to use their own mother tongues – and only for very good reasons should it limit their use of visual languages, symbols of importance to particular groups, forms of dress, and so on. When that happens, it is a violation of the basic principle of free expression. If you know of other interesting cases, please describe them here.

What if I don’t want to receive what you want to impart?

There are three vital pairs of words in this principle: free and able, receive and impart, information and ideas. “Free and able” we’ve talked about: that’s the difference between legal right and effective power. “Receive and impart” is an important distinction too. There’s the freedom of the woman or man who wants to impart something – be it as speaker, writer, blogger, painter, demonstrator or performer – and that of the person who wants to receive – whether as reader, listener, internet user, television viewer or physical spectator. Sometimes there’s a tension between the two. I may want to impart something that you don’t want to receive.

So far as possible, both of us should be free to choose. On this site, for example, when there is something that we think important, but which we know some people will strongly prefer not to see, we give you the choice of clicking through or not. So click here to see the Wikipedia page showing the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, which caused such a furore when they were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten and then went round the world on the internet. Or don’t click, if your religious sensibilities will be offended (see P6). It’s up to you.

But there are numerous difficult issues here. Wikipedia itself is working on an image filter, which would enable adult users – or parents for their children – to elect not to see certain categories of image. Is it right that most media should spare us the most horrific images of war and torture? Should we not precisely be confronted with them, so we appreciate the full horror and can act to prevent it wherever possible? What about giant billboards which you can hardly help noticing if you walk to work down that street or a religious symbol hanging in the classroom of a public school you have to attend.

The importance of information

Like Article 19, our principle says “information and ideas”. This is not a crystal clear distinction, like that between fire and water; but there is a difference. Information includes facts about the physical and human world, and data that governments, companies, churches and individuals often prefer to keep secret (see P3, 7 and 8). The freedom of information is not exactly the same as the freedom of expression, but it is closely related to it. The authoritative interpretation of Article 19 by the UN Human Rights Committee says it “embraces a general right of access to information held by public bodies”. But what exactly does that mean?

The German constitution says people must be free to inform themselves “from generally accessible sources”. What about generally inaccessible ones? How can I effectively question my government’s case for going to war, if the head of government says, “Our intelligence tells us that the enemy has battle-ready weapons of mass destruction” – but we are not allowed to know what that intelligence is? Asymmetries of information are also asymmetries of power.

Regardless of frontiers!

Last but not least, Article 19 lays down that freedom of expression is “regardless of frontiers”. Most international human rights agreements take the form, “We, state A or B, solemnly swear to respect rights X and Y of our own citizens (or residents) inside our own frontiers.” This one says, “We will allow ideas and information to flow both in and out across those frontiers!” That was a remarkable thing to say back in 1948, when international broadcasting was in its infancy and the internet was still science fiction. Today, governments must go to extraordinary lengths if they are to stop information and ideas flowing across frontiers. Many do.

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Comments (15)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Hi everyone, I’m the first who comments in this section. On the one hand, I do not understand how such a site is deserted by all who have the desire to communicate and share their thoughts with anyone, freely, but soon after, I realize that everything the web has fallen upon us with a so quickly that we do not have a clear vision of what the web, or what is the chance to express themselves freely. Freedom from whom? The concept of freedom is so far away that it is difficult and self-talk. Personally, I hope for a worldwide deployment of this platform to be, regardless of whether they agree on one or more themes.
    Thanks for the idea and the opportunity.

  2. Thanks for this brilliant introduction to the topic. I especially appreciate to stress the signifier ‘able’ in the principle as I think that the question of power even far outweighs (!) the question of law.

  3. I highly agree with this principle, and I understand how the others branch of from this one. Therefore, it is a vital one to discuss and gain a better understanding about. Personal opinions and ideas is what shapes each person as an individual and without these the world would be an extremely uniform and monotonous place. Therefore it is crucial to be able to express and communicate these ideas, even when others do not agree. Of course I admit that this is unfortunately not always the case. But as stated, we need to have the power to be able to express as well as the will. This begins by appreciating what others have to say and at the same time having the ability to accept that your own opinion is just as good as any.

  4. I’ve read recently an interview given by Professor Timothy Garton Ash for Polish magazine “Polityka” – titled “Dangerous Speech” but devoted to wider spectrum of free-speech-debate matters. Among other interesting statements, with majority of which I agree, Professor states that democracy “always needs debate” and that the debate “plays its role” better if there are less limitations of free speech. But what is this role to play – that is my question. Debate is considered a key attribute of democracy, but maybe sometimes is treated as democracy’s Sacred Cow. Is it really enough if only debate exists and continues in free and civilized manner? I’m skeptical about this. If debate hasn’t any other aim than exchange of thinking, one can expect its running wild and becoming useless (another danger for participants: GBS stated that in an exchange of thinking transaction he usually was the loser). I think that the most important factor essential for democracy as a system of majority rules, making debate sound, is a debate final aim: taking a decision by ballot, just by debating body. There is an opinion that natural extension – or rather 2.0 Variant – of the first watchword of modern democracy “no taxation without representation” is the formula “no obeying a decision without to vote on it” that can be fulfilled via Internet. I agree with this opinion, and I’m convinced that in this century cybernetic assisted direct democracy, with truly fruitful debates, will become real. More arguments in my article “Cyberdemocracy as a future product of political systems engineering” http://www.sapub.org/journal/search.aspx?doi=10.5923/j.fs.20110101.02.
    Andrzej Kaczmarczyk
    Institute of Mathematical Machines, Warsaw, Poland

  5. The idea of freedom as a right is quite strange because the concept of a right in itself is a myth. A right is simply a metaphysical idea that doesn’t protect one against anything. Of everything that happens there is only what comes to pass. If someone is arrested for assault it is not the right of the victim that is protected but simply the will of the government to punish. Should we have freedom? It would be nice but not our right.

  6. Yes, we’re all humans, we make up the basic unit of society and therefore in order for society to be free, each individual within the society must also be allowed to be free.

  7. I totally agree with this statement, I believe that every person should be able to express their self, I believe that every person has a purpose in life, if you look around you everything has a purpose, the trees have a purpose, the birds have a purpose, all the animals have a purpose, so human beings surely have a purpose, and the wise man is he who finds his or her life’s purpose. Human Beings have two ears, and a tongue, to hear as twice as you speak is a good thing, this helps you learn more in order to interact properly. Without communication nothing would happen, so people must communicate and be able to express their selves freely

  8. ¿Cómo podemos cambiar el instinto de nuestro genoma?
    ¿Por qué la condición humana está tan lejos de la declaración de derechos humanos?

  9. Adding ‘and able’ is a serious error. It opens the door to State intervention in the name of promoting freedom of expression which, as night follows day, will end up restricting it. No state willingly expends resources on promoting free speech without trying to stipulate the kinds of speech that its resources can be used for.

    Just listen to the politicians who insist that the right of free speech must be exercised responsibly. A fundamental right of free speech that protects only ‘responsible’ speech protects nothing worth having. Once those politicians are expending state funds to provide our internet connections the rest is inevitable.

    Please stick to the 1948 wording. For the internet, it cannot be bettered.

  10. “Join us, wherever you are, for a global conversation. Read and criticise our 10 draft principles. Explore controversial examples. Hear the thoughts of others. Have your say…”

    An interesting initiative. Yet prior to embarking upon any endeavour, might it not prove prudent to precisely categorise the intention underlying the quest? As well as identifying what is, and what can be done to overcome, the greatest impediment to securing that desired accomplishment?
    In this case, is discussion the goal? Or is this merely a device, deployed toward attainment of an inestimably higher value outcome? Resolution of these queries, necessitates use of questions specifically designed to identify some fundamental requirement universal to us all. That effort then applied, coalesces as a single vector. Plus, exposure of an obvious but un-addressed flaw in our physiological construction. Which has, until now, frustrated major advancement for our kind.

    Q1. What is such a crusade intended to achieve?
    Potentially, there are as many responses to that conundrum as there are individuals to contrive them. Yet not one of those explanations, being wholly dependant or entirely reliant on the presence of humanity, can manifest without the existence of humanity. So, might ensuring the continuation of the species constitute the common purpose pursued?

    Q2. What prevents a realisation of the above?
    To function effectively in reality, human appreciations have to accommodate every aspect of existence they encounter. Else-wise, conflict will ensue from that plethora of disparate ‘understandings’ arrived at through selective appraisal. This inherent constructional defect is unfortunately not correctable. But what if, once registered in collective consciousness, it could be compensated for?

    Free Speech Disclaimer Prefacing All Principles Of Debate.
    I, in common with all other humans (evidence for concept available on application), am not ‘plugged’ directly into reality. But rather into an ‘interpreter’ interface, whose subjective output may be genuinely mistaken for said objective experience. Consequently, what follows is but a rendition of reality together with its associated workings. Additionally, given acknowledgement of the primary principle, debate is intended to ensure that those conditions conducive to species survival are maintained. Such that an inclination to suppress open discussion, as opposed to personally forswearing involvement in it, shall signify the presence of a closed ‘comprehension’. One that will not withstand comparative testing. Being likely to unnecessarily imperil species continuance, and by extension its own possessor’s longevity. (No humans, no debatable notional constructs, invented ideologies, pseudo philosophies, or any other homo sapien-powered activity).

    There are as many ways to explain a view as there are minds to interpret it. If any particular explanatory format cannot be assimilated, it is by no means the fault of an audience. All onus rests with the presenter. Who will and must, when requested, rework their mentation from as many differing perspectives as may prove necessary to achieve comprehension and reaffirmation. Truth alone is resilient to interminable debate. Which offers a clue as to why untruth is so desperate to avoid it.

    “Professor states that democracy “always needs debate” and that the debate “plays its role” better if there are less limitations of free speech.”
    An opportunity once presented itself to ask a politician, if he considered it vital for someone in his position to possess a firm grasp of reality. He replied in the affirmative. The next query concerned whether he believed in democracy. His response confirmed that he did. When questioned as to what democracy was, he stated fairness. This prompted pointing out that a dictionary defines democracy as, “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Or policy selection via majority mandate. So was expressing belief in something when one didn’t know what that something was, evidence of a firm grasp of reality? Sadly he was unable to spare time to even make an excuse, before fleeing.


  11. I’m a little confused by the website, I wanted to start a discussion – but I’ll add to this instead.
    I don’t agree with the principle. I’m a bit surprised that anyone does! here in the UK I have a wide range of legal and social bans on what I can say. These bans are quite widely accepted and the free speech debate is to some extent a tool to criticise the values held by other non-western societies. Let me give some examples:
    1) Should I be free to publish information about a defendant on trial?
    2) Should I be free to name a rape victim? comment on his or her behaviour? while the case is in court?
    3) Can I publish research results on skin colour variation between races? [yes] Can I do the same about conginitive attributes? – not if I want a job in a UK or US University?
    4) Can I question the roles of men and women in modern society? And still be allowed conduct job interviews as part of my job?
    6) Can I talk openly about my religious views and evangelise?
    I’m not talking about National security issues, but that we have other widely accepted, largely unchallenged laws and social rules which threaten the careers, livliehood and freedom of transgressors. I don’t think India or Arab states have more rules, just different ones.
    In many cases the rules are well-meant and intended to support justice or promote admirable changes to society. But make no mistake, they stop free expression and publication of some information.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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