The basic principle


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

Timothy Garton Ash
Timothy Garton Ash, director of Free Speech Debate, gives a personal introduction

This principle is first not just in order but in importance. It is the basic principle. The other nine principles say more about what this one means, how it can be realised and where the limits to free expression should lie. If you fundamentally disagree with this basic principle, please say why on our discussion pages.

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 P5).

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 P3).

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 P4, 6 and 7).

Our draft 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.

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 P2.) It’s pretty limited if your country’s media are dominated by a few rich men, companies, or groups (see P3). 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.

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.

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.

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 P7). 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.

Like Article 19, our draft 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 P5, 8 and 10). 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.

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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