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(Guest Editorial) - What is Freedom of Expression?

Sep 14, 2009, 6:02 AM

Freedom of expression is a fundamental liberty guaranteed by most national constitutions and reads: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes (a) freedom of the press and other media (b) freedom to receive or impart information or ideas (c) freedom of artistic creativity; and (d) academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.

Freedom of expression protects and fosters a number of values, including the pursuit of truth, the functioning of democracy and individual fulfillment: 'Freedom of expression lies at the heart of a democracy. It is valuable for many reasons, including its instrumental function as a guarantor of democracy, its implicit recognition and protection of the moral agency of individuals in society and its facilitation of the search for truth by individuals and society generally.Individuals in our society need to be able to hear, form and express opinions and views freely on a wide range of matters.'

Freedom of expression is one of a web of mutually supporting right. It is closely related to freedom of religion, belief and opinion, the right to dignity as well as the right to freedom of association, the right to vote and to stand for public office and the right to assembly. These rights taken together protect the rights of individuals not only individually to form and express opinions, of whatever nature, but to establish associations and groups of like-minded people to foster and propagate such opinions. The rights implicitly recognize the importance, both for a democratic society and for individuals personally, of the ability to form and express opinions, whether individually or collectively, even when those views are controversial.

The corollary of the freedom of expression and its related rights is tolerance by society of different views.  Tolerance, of course, does not require approbation of a particular view. In essence, it requires the acceptance of the public airing of disagreements and the refusal to silence unpopular views.

The right to freedom of the media has also been interpreted as protecting the 'tools of the trade' that are integral to various forms of the media. In a system of democracy dedicated to openness and accountability.the especially important role of the media, both publicly and privately owned, must be recognized. The success of our constitutional venture depends upon robust criticism of the exercise of power. This requires alert and critical citizens. But strong and independent newspapers, journals, and broadcast media are needed also, if those criticisms are to be effectively voiced, and if they are to be informed with the factual content and critical perspectives that investigative journalism may provide.It is for this reason that national constitutions recognize the especial importance and role of the media in nurturing and strengthening democracy.

However, no national constitution should protect expression that constitutes (a) propaganda for war (b) incitement of imminent violence, or (c) advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, that constitutes incitement to cause harm.

"Freedom is the right to do whatever the laws permit".

Charles Montesquieu