The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by international human rights treaties, most of which have evolved from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What do human rights standards say about freedom of expression?
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UNESCO, the UN agency that promotes freedom of expression, has put together this two-page compilation of international standards, starting with the UDHR. The second one on the list, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), is perhaps the most important because it’s a treaty that most UN members have agreed to be bound by. The website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has the full text of the ICCPR.
Is this an absolute right?
Absolutely not. One of the most common criticisms you’ll hear about free speech is that it is unreasonable to treat it as an absolute right. The funny thing is, even free speech advocates agree – nobody argues for total and unlimited freedom of expression, and that’s not what international human rights treaties have ever called for. (Go back to Article 19 of ICCPR and read section 3 to see for yourself.)
So, when those who don’t want to give us freedom of expression argue that it cannot be absolute, they are probably trying to distract us with a false debate. The real issue is whether restrictions and limits on free expression are being imposed properly. Just as individuals don’t have an absolute right to freedom of expression, states shouldn’t have unlimited power to crush that right.
Why is freedom of expression considered so important?
The Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash has created a useful website discussing key principles around freedom of expression. He has also come up with his own principles, elaborating on international human rights law, and expressed in a less legalistic and more accessible way. You can find his 10 Principles here, and his justification for why they’re important.