Freedom of expression is, essentially, freedom of speech, though the term is most often used to describe outlets other than the spoken word, namely writing. While its main purpose is to protect the right to communicate information, it also protects the right to both look for and receive information. Several countries have limitations on freedom of expression in place and a few do not recognize it as a right at all. Despite this, freedom of expression is considered a human right by both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19).
Freedom of expression is considered essential to a functional democracy. The right to look for, receive and convey all forms of information is key to holding valid and fair elections. It is also the cornerstone of any government controlled by the citizens, because knowledge of government decisions and actions is vital for political transparency.
While this freedom is a protected right in many countries, including the United States — where it is protected by the First Amendment — most countries do have limitations. These typically include bans on child pornography, certain advertising regulations and obscenity laws. It is also unlawful in the U.S. and many other countries to express the threat of danger when there is none.
Regulation of hate speech is possibly one of the most controversial issues in regards to freedom of expression. Hate speech is considered a conveyance of ideas, and limits are typically only placed on this form of speech when it accompanies threats or plans of violence. Most countries typically have controls placed on media regarding the safety of military members, making it unlawful to disseminate information regarding troop locations or plans when it may put the military in danger.
Freedom of expression also encompasses the retrieval of information. This means people have the right to look for and acquire information on almost any subject, including the actions of their government. While this form of expression has many more limitations than others, it is typically upheld in most democracies.
A free and open exchange of ideas is considered not only one of the primary pillars of democracy but also of human development and enlightenment as a whole. Freedom of expression allows people of all walks of life to both express their beliefs and opinions and to learn about the views of others. The protection of this human right is of utmost importance to several countries and almost every global organization.