Everyone has the right to communicate his or her opinions and ideas and share information in whatever form. In human rights this is called freedom of expression. It prohibits the state and other people in society from censorship and it can be restricted for only very serious reasons.

Freedom of expression & Democracy

Freedom of expression is an important human right which is essential for a society to be democratic. It enables the free exchange of ideas, opinions and information and thus allows members of society to form their own opinions on issues of public importance. Freedom of expression serves public debate and supports a free and independent media, informed citizenship and the transparent functioning of the state.


The right to freedom of expression is very broad, but it has limits and can be restricted. This is when the freedom of expression of one person violates the rights of another person or the values of society as a whole. In situations like these, the state can lawfully restrict or punish expressions that cause harm. Examples of harmful expressions are defamation, hate speech, unlawful disclosure of private information, obscenity, pornography, copyright violations. With restrictions of free expression the state may seek to protect such interests and values as public order, public health or morals, national security, state or trade secrets.


Freedom of expression gives special rights and duties to the media. The media inform society on matters of public interest and create an important platform for public debate, scrutiny and reflection. Therefore, independent media and quality journalism are considered to be the “watchdog” of a democratic society.

About this Guide

This guide explains the principles of freedom of expression and the cases in which these can be lawfully restricted. It also elaborates on balancing freedom of expression with privacy, and prohibition of defamation and hate speech. Furthermore, it helps one to understand the special rights and freedoms of the media as well as the right to access both public and restricted information from state institutions. The dedicated How to complain sections help in understanding what can be done where there is a potential human rights violation. 

Assess your knowledge

If you wish to use the Guide for learning purposes, the Guide offers you a possibility to assess your knowledge in human rights before or after studying, by completing tests about different themes included in the Guide.

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education