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What is freedom of speech?

Ana Matronic © Amnesty International
Freedom of speech is the right to say whatever you like about whatever you like, whenever you like, right? Wrong.
'Freedom of speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.'
Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be deeply offensive. But it comes with responsibilities and we believe it can be legitimately restricted.

Is freedom of speech a human right?

In the UK, Article 10 of the 1998 Human Rights Act protects our right to freedom of expression:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

Are freedom of speech and freedom of expression the same thing? In the UK, freedom of speech is legally one part of the wider concept of freedom of expression.

Does freedom of speech have limits?

You might not expect us to say this, but in certain circumstances free speech and freedom of expression can be restricted.
Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement. These are dangerous. Restrictions can also be justified if they protect specific public interest or the rights and reputations of others.
Any restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of expression must be set out in laws that must in turn be clear and concise so everyone can understand them.
People imposing the restrictions (whether they are governments, employers or anyone else) must be able to demonstrate the need for them, and they must be proportionate.
All of this has to be backed up by safeguards to stop the abuse of these restrictions and incorporate a proper appeals process.

...and when it can't

Restrictions that do not comply with all these conditions violate freedom of expression.


We consider people put in prison solely for exercising their right to free speech to be prisoners of conscience. 
Jabbar Savalan was imprisoned after calling for protests against the government on Facebook. We considered him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his release. Read Jabbar's story

Checks and balances


Any restriction should be as specific as possible. It would be wrong to ban an entire website because of a problem with one page.

National security and public order

These terms must be precisely defined in law to prevent them being used as excuses for excessive restrictions.
Right now in the UK, the right to freedom of expression is under threat by anti-protest legislation in the UK. 



This is a very subjective area, but any restrictions must not be based on a single tradition or religion and must not discriminate against anyone living in a particular country.

Rights and reputations of others

Public officials should tolerate more criticism than private individuals. So defamation laws that stop legitimate criticism of a government or public official, violate the right to free speech.


Protecting abstract concepts, religious beliefs or other beliefs or the sensibilities of people that believe them is not grounds for restricting freedom of speech.

Media and journalists

Journalists and bloggers face particular risks because of the work they do. Countries therefore have a responsibility to protect their right to freedom of speech. Restrictions on Newspapers, TV stations, etc can affect everyone’s right to freedom of expression.


Government should never bring criminal proceedings against anyone who reveals information about human rights abuses.

Rights and responsibilities

Free speech is one of our most important rights and one of the most misunderstood.
Use your freedom of speech to speak out for those that are denied theirs. But use it responsibly: it is a powerful thing.

Learn more

Join our FREE three-week course on Freedom of Expression: