Protecting Freedom of Expression

Protecting Freedom of Expression

Humanist critical thinking and the Enlightenment movement had a direct impact on the first Human Rights declarations of the 18th century. Today, the EHF is still deeply committed to the defense and the promotion of Human Rights in Europe and worldwide.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right for individuals. It is also vital for all societies, to enable a plurality of opinions. It is protected by all major international human rights instruments, including Article 19 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The vast majority of countries are signed up to these conventions, and there is a strong claim even on the countries that are not signed up, namely that the right to speak freely is a basic moral right which states should uphold and protect.

Of particular importance to us as secularists and humanists is Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees freedom of expression – including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. The European Court of Human Rights has repeated on numerous occasions that it extends to ideas that “offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population”. It can only be limited in very restrictive circumstances such as, for instance, incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence.

The EHF stands for the abolition of Blasphemy Laws

 Human Rights protect individuals and not ideas or religions as such. However, unlike freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief which is absolute, freedom of expression can be limited under the international human rights framework. These limits vary from state to state, but for example, they sometimes include libel and defamation against individuals, incitement to hatred, violence or discrimination against a person, a group or a community. For this reason, some “blasphemy” laws may include — or be included in legislation which places — a ban on inciting hatred or violence. Such prohibitions against incitement to hatred or violence do not necessarily in themselves violate the right to freedom of expression.

By their nature laws against “blasphemy” and religious insult always go beyond a ban on incitement to hatred or violence. “Blasphemy” and religious insult laws in practice prohibit, make it harder or limit free expression when it comes to asking questions, offering criticism, and expressing satire or ridicule, in relation to religion. These modes of discourse (questioning, criticising, satirising, and ridiculing) belong firmly in the realm of freedom of expression. Therefore, “blasphemy” and “insult to religion” laws, which criminalize such expression, contravene freedom of expression and are in violation of the international human rights framework.

While freedom of thought and belief, including religious belief, must be protected, it is equally important to guarantee an environment in which a critical discussion about religion can be held. There is no fundamental right not to be offended in one’s religious feelings. Religions per se do not hold rights. Churches and religious groups should be open to hearing criticism, just as every group in society. Intellectual and cultural advancement relies on the free exchange of ideas.  Protecting any ideas from criticism does them no favor: it allows them to survive unchanged without being adapted and improved.

The EHF pays a special attention to the defense of freedom of expression and opposes blasphemy laws and resolutions against the so-called “defamation of religions”. While promoting respect and tolerance, the EHF holds the view that the right to freedom of religion or belief does not include the right to have a religion or a belief that is free from criticism or ridicule.