Freedom of Expression

“If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” - Noam Chomsky

The freedom to express our thoughts is an important part of our individual identity. When we talk and write about our opinions we are contributing ideas and participating in society. Freedom of expression is covered in article 19 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “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”. Freedom of expression is widely acknowledged as a basic human right that should be available to all, playing a crucial role in a fair and open society.

Many countries and organizations place limits on freedom of expression. These limitations can be a way of controlling people. Restricting voting rights, censoring speech and art and outlawing specific religious and political groups are some of the tools governments have used to control public opposition. Even societies that consider themselves free and democratic suppress opposing views. Consider your local newspaper; although you might expect objectivity, if you were to analyze the content, you might not find a variety of informed opinions and critiques. Editorial and news writers may be influenced by their own political views. In some places, reporters are trained to manipulate or omit information that could harm those in power.

Should there be no limits on freedom of expression? If we are entitled to express ourselves freely we must accept that others will express ideas very different from our own. This might include ideas that offend and possibly even hurt us. Hate speech attacks people based upon such distinctions as race, religion and gender. Should we censor ideas that damage and promote cruelty? The content of a book, a song or a film may cross societal lines of morality and decency. Should we censor art works that are violent, insulting or degrading? These are some of the complex questions you must think about. Feeling intimidated and forced to subscribe to traditional or mainstream beliefs is a violation of your personal freedom. But sometimes authorities set rules and boundaries for good reason. Understanding why the rules exist is more important than automatically obeying them.

For more on this topic, please see the Civil Liberties section in Understanding Human Rights and Equity.

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