What is the right to freedom of opinion and expression?

Freedom of opinion and expression is a fundamental human right, protected in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and given legal force through all major international and regional human rights treaties.

International human rights law requires States to guarantee to all people the freedom to seek, receive or impart information or ideas of any kind, regardless of frontiers, through any media of a person’s choice.

The scope of the right to freedom of expression is broad. It includes, for example, the expression of opinions and ideas that others may find deeply offensive, and this may encompass discriminatory expression.

It is often said that all human rights are universal, indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing. There are two reasons why international law grants particular importance to the right to freedom of expression as a cornerstone right

  • At a personal level, freedom of expression is a key to the development, dignity and fulfilment of every person. People can gain an understanding of their surroundings and the wider world by exchanging ideas and information freely with others. People feel more secure and respected if they are able to speak their minds.
  • At a state level, freedom of expression is necessary for good governance and therefore for economic and social progress. It ensures accountability by enabling people to freely debate and raise concerns with government, including for the protection and promotion of other human rights.

Because freedom of expression is so important, any limits on it have to be exceptional, clearly defined, and justified. International human rights law doesn’t just draw a line around what can and cannot be said, but sets out strict criteria which States must adhere to in order to justify any measures they take to restrict speech.