Freedom of speech and expression has a long history that predates modern international human rights instruments. It is thought that ancient Athenian democratic principle of free speech may have emerged in the late 6th or early 5th century BC. The values of the Roman Republic included freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Concepts of freedom of speech can be found in early human rights documents. England's Bill of Rights 1689 legally established the constitutional right of 'freedom of speech in Parliament' which is still in effect. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted during the French Revolution in 1789, specifically affirmed freedom of speech as an inalienable right. The Declaration provides for freedom of expression in Article 11, which states that:
The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states that:
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.
Today, freedom of speech, or the freedom of expression, is recognized in international and regional human rights law. The right is enshrined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Based on John Milton's arguments, freedom of speech is understood as a multi-faceted right that includes not only the right to express, or disseminate, information and ideas, but three further distinct aspects:
- the right to seek information and ideas;
- the right to receive information and ideas;
- the right to impart information and ideas
International, regional and national standards also recognize that freedom of speech, as the freedom of expression, includes any medium, be it orally, in written, in print, through the Internet or through art forms. This means that the protection of freedom of speech as a right includes not only the content, but also the means of expression.
Relationship to other rights
The right to freedom of speech and expression is closely related to other rights, and may be limited when conflicting with other rights (see limitations on freedom of speech). The right to freedom of expression is also related to the right to a fair trial and court proceeding which may limit access to the search for information, or determine the opportunity and means in which freedom of expression is manifested within court proceedings. As a general principle freedom of expression may not limit the right to privacy, as well as the honor and reputation of others. However greater latitude is given when criticism of public figures is involved.
The right to freedom of expression is particularly important for media, which plays a special role as the bearer of the general right to freedom of expression for all. However, freedom of the press does not necessarily enable freedom of speech. Judith Lichtenberg has outlined conditions in which freedom of the press may constrain freedom of speech, for example where the media suppresses information or stifles the diversity of voices inherent in freedom of speech. Lichtenberg argues that freedom of the press is simply a form of property right summed up by the principle "no money, no voice".