The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by international human rights treaties, the most important of which is Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It evolved from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
What do international principles say?
One of the leading NGOs that promotes Article 19 right is named after this right – the organisation is also called Article 19. Unlike some other advocacy groups, it tries to make sure that everything it says is backed by careful legal analysis of international human rights treaties. Therefore, its website is one of the most reliable sources of information about freedom of expression.
Read this page on the Article19.org website for an introduction to the relevant UN documents. The website of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has the full text of the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights.
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 re-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.