5. Freedom of expression


This module addresses the right to freedom of expression, the rights to receive and disseminate information and to access information. Students discuss issues related to when and how they can uphold their opinions, as well as issues related to the media freedom and freedom of assembly.


Short description of the session 

 This session starts with an exercise where the pupils are to discuss different statements, express their opinions and listen to others. The activity will show that all of us, when we form our opinions and grow as individuals, make use of our right to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression includes the right to seek, receive and disseminate information and ideas of all kinds. Freedom of expression is an essential part of personal development, democracy and finding the truth.

In the session´s second part, the pupils are going to do a group work where they are to dig deeper into freedom of expression as a human right. Are there situations in which a state should have the right to restrict the individuals´ freedom of expression? The pupils will work in groups and explore arguments for and against complete freedom of expression. Afterwards, the teacher will hold a lecture on how freedom of expression is protected in international human rights documents. NB: The two activities stand on their own feet and can be done separately.

Learning goals

The pupils shall

  • understand why freedom of expression is essential for forming opinions and obtain new knowledge, and why it is important to respect other´s right to speak their minds
  • understand the most important reasons behind freedom of expression, but also understand that there might also be arguments to restrict it
  • learn that according to human rights conventions, states are allowed to restrict freedom of expression in some situations, under certain conditions
  • comprehend how important it is to debate the situations where governments restrict freedom of expression
  • understand that in a democracy, the level of freedom of expression should be high.


  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Requirements: A large room with ample space for moving around. Three large sheets of paper. On the first one is written YES, on the second I DON´T KNOW, and on the third one, NO.
  • Preparation: The teacher must have prepared a list of statements which the pupils are to discuss. The statements must be clearly formulated, so they are easy to understand.
  • Persons over 16 should be allowed to vote in parliamentary elections
  • Fathers can be as just as good caregivers for their children as mothers
  • It should be allowed for the police to torture suspected criminals, in order to prevent terrorism
  • Freedom of speech should never be limited
  • Women/girls can do everything!
  • Societies should use death penalty for the most serious crimes
  • Marriage between persons with different ethnicity and cultural backgrounds is not to be recommended
  • Homosexuals should be allowed to marry
  • Police and other state authorities should not be allowed to wear religious symbols
  • In a situation where civilians are victims of severe human rights abuses such as war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity - and the government in charge is not able to or willing to interfere (or worse, the government itself is responsible) -  it is the duty of the international community to interfere militarily in a so-called humanitarian intervention.


Activity: The Dialogue exercise

The teacher places the big YES and NO papers on the floor on each side of the room. In the middle is the DON´T KNOW paper. Pupils are asked out on the floor. The teacher explains that that he/she will read out some statements. Those who agree with the statement go to the YES-side. Those who don´t agree, go to the NO-side, and those who are unsure, go to the DON´T KNOW paper. The teacher reads out the first statement, whereupon the pupils reflect for a minute or so, and places themselves in the room according to their opinions. The teacher opens up for reflection. The word should first be given to one or two in the smallest group to explain their positions. Afterwards the others, one by one, can argue for their stances. All sides must be given the opportunity to explain, including those who do not know. The teacher must inform that it is allowed to change positions at any time during the discussion. There is no aim to reach agreement.
NB: It is important that the teacher do not convey his/her own opinions about the statements. It is the pupils who are to discuss. The teacher´s role is just to facilitate.

  1. When someone changes his/her position, the teacher should ask why.
  2. Discussions about each statement should last as long as participants find it interesting (often between 5-10 minutes).
  3. A normal dialogue exercise would last for about 45 minutes, with four to six statements discussed. If the teacher is unsure whether the group wants to continue, he/she may present this statement: “We end this exercise now».
  4. When the discussions are finished, the teacher invites the pupils to reflect:
  • What do you think about the exercise?
  • Did you learn something new?
  • Did you manage to “talk” someone over to your side?
  • Was it difficult to be alone, or among the few, on one side?
  • Do we influence each other through dialogue and discussion? Why?
  • Do we have a need to express our opinions? Why?
  • What are the consequences when we do not speak our minds?
  • Is dialogue a requirement for researchers to come closer to scientific truths? Why?
  • Is dialogue a requirement for forming better societies? Why?



Through discussion and dialogue, we learn from each other, about each other and about ourselves. Dialogue makes us reflect about the world and the society at large and gives us new knowledge. Just as I am influenced by others, I myself, by using my freedom of speech, can influence them. In our daily lives, dialogue is the tool we use to exchange knowledge and experiences and form our opinions. A fruitful dialogue requires freedom of expression. All of us should be able to speak our minds and listen to others. We should not be afraid of listening to others speak. In fact, often it is from people that have ideas far from our own, that we can learn more. If we don´t like or believe what they say, we will just be more convinced about our own position. And if we do find their thoughts interesting, we might change our minds. In both circumstances, we have become wiser. When was the last time you changed your mind?

Freedom of expression is a human right which is protected in several international human rights treaties, as well as in the Bulgarian Constitution.

Follow up group work


  • Time: From 1 to 2 hours, depending on how in-depth the teacher wants to go in the lecture
  • Requirements: A large room with ample space for group work, large sheets of paper, markers, pen and paper.
  • Preparations: A lecture on freedom of expression and how it is protected in the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights.


Activity: Freedom of expression as a human right

In this group work the pupils will explore arguments for and against complete freedom of expression. It will prepare them for a lecture on how freedom of expression is protected in international human rights documents. 

  1. The teacher introduces the task: Freedom of expression is an important human right, but are there situations in which this freedom should be restricted? The pupils are to explore arguments for and against complete freedom of expression. The teacher will divide the pupils into groups. There must be at least two groups because the pupils will be working with freedom of expression from opposite perspectives. If there are many participants, for example 20 or more, they can be divided into four groups, where two of them will have the same task:One (or two) group (s) will have this task: Find as many arguments as possible to support the idea of complete freedom of expressionThe other group (s) will have this task: Find as many arguments as possible to support the idea that freedom of expression, in some circumstances, should be restricted (30 minutes)
  2. The groups present their work in a plenary session.
    The group (s) that have worked with arguments for freedom of expression shall present their arguments first.
  3. The teacher summarizes:
    The group work has shown that there are many good reasons for freedom of expression, but also that this freedom sometimes should be restricted. This duality is reflected in the international human rights documents. The treaties protect freedom of expression but give the states possibilities to restrict this freedom in some situations and under certain circumstances.

 Introduction to freedom of expression

There are many good reasons for supporting freedom of expression. It is the cornerstone of any democratic society, it is a necessary part of getting closer to the truth and it is an important part of our personal development. Without freedom of expression we cannot communicate with others and create our identity. These positive aspects are reflected in Article 19, relating to freedom of expression, in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (1948): 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.

The state shall protect everyone´s freedom of expression

Freedom of expression, as a human right, implies that the states shall protect everyone´s freedom to have opinions and to express them. Expressions can be oral, in writing or through action. Personal expressions like the way we dress, hairstyles etc. are protected. It also safeguards our right to information. In practice, freedom of expression includes the freedom of the press and broadcasting media. Diversity in the media should be protected. Without a free and diverse press, there can be no democratic society.

Freedom of expression protects basically all expressions, independent of their content. This means that also insulting, offensive, blasphemous, racial, degrading and mendacious expressions are protected. This right then also protects words and pictures we disapprove of. This might be opinions, ideas or information that shock us, offend certain groups, or disturb the state. The reason why freedom of expression compels the states to allow provocative expressions is that such statements – paradoxically – can have a valuable impact. The point is simple: only when people are confronted with ideas and attitudes they don´t like, can they fight back. By delivering counterarguments, the ideas can be refuted and peoples´ opinions changed. In a longer perspective, this dynamic will reduce the occurrence of destructive ideas and hence develop more democratic, mature and peaceful societies.

Although freedom of expression, in principle, protects all expressions, it is not without boundaries. When expressions have very negative impact on individuals or society at large, the states have a legal right to restrict it.

The state´s right to restrict expressions

After World War II, in the process of negotiating juridical binding human rights conventions, the states agreed on freedom of expression as an essential human right. Hence, in both the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966), freedom of expression is included. However, since conventions are legally binding (unlike declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the states wanted to reserve the right to restrict expressions with destructive impact. This could for example be expressions that lead to disorder or crime, threaten health and morality or violate another citizen’s reputation or rights. Thus, the Articles about freedom of expression in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as other legally binding human rights instruments, include provisions on restrictions.

Article 10 in the European Convention on Human Rights reads:

Article 10. Freedom of Expression

  1. 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. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
  2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

The Article recognizes that freedom of expression cannot be absolute, but that there are good reasons for restricting expressions that have harmful and destructive effects. This may refer, for example, to expressions that compromise other peoples´ privacy and family life; that discriminate against vulnerable groups; that encourage violence and terrorism, that are pornographic and can harm children and young people; that disclose state secrets; or that have other negative impact on individuals, the state or the society at large. According to the Article, however, any restrictions must be according to the law and must be necessary in a democratic society. Since freedom of expression is such a fundamental democratic value, the states´ restrictions cannot be arbitrary.

Where should the line be drawn?

Since the treaties' formulations, in general, are narrow, they do not cover all issues and dilemmas that may arise. Indeed, the term “necessary in a democratic society” is not self-explanatory but must be interpreted from one specific case to the next. The UN Human Rights Committee, through its general guidelines and recommendations1, and the European Court of Human Rights, through its case law, interpret how the scope of the freedom of expression is to be understood according to, respectively, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. The practice of these bodies will be relevant for the interpretation of freedom of expression and when states should be allowed to impose restrictions.

Where the line should be drawn between lawful and unlawful expressions is an important debate. Since the treaties recognize a number of legitimate limitations on the exercise of the freedom of expression, freedom of expression can mean different things to different people, depending on the State and the situation in question. When should the states´ restrictions be acceptable?

Freedom of expression – crucial for our democracies

In considering whether it is legitimate to intervene against an expression, the nature and meaning of the statement must be considered. One important point to note is that expressions that have public interest, for example those that questions politicians and their power base, enjoy stronger protection than expressions without such interest. This kind of information is crucial for our democracies. People must know whom they are choosing as their leaders.

It is important to be aware of the fact that a number of governments can misuse their legal right to impose restrictions and restrict the freedom of expression for political reasons. In such cases, while they may explain the restrictions with the best of intentions – whether the purpose is to prevent discrimination, ensure stability or counteract terrorism – their aim is to reduce criticism against their own power base. In a number of states, freedom of expression is compromised today. In fact, several European and global organizations that monitor freedom of expression report that the situation today is under threat.

Freedom of opinion and expression is the cornerstone of any democratic society. Today there are few states in the world which do not lay down this right in their constitutions. Whether this is a freedom fully enjoyed by all peoples is another matter entirely.


How to use the museums

Many museums can be visited in order to increase pupils knowledge about freedom of expression. The pupils can work in groups or individually with different tasks. They can work with the subject for shorter or longer periods. They can write essays or prepare presentations for the others in the classroom and open up for questions and discussions.


Before visiting the museum the pupils must prepare. They must have thought about visible signs that say something about the degree of freedom of expression in a society. How can one see and feel freedom of expression in a society? How does freedom of expression express itself?

Answer: Freedom of expression express itself in many ways:

  • Can people say what they want?
  • Are there different newspapers, media and websites which express diverse point of views about politics and other societal matters?
  • Are there many different radio and tv-channels?
  • Are there many different theaters and cinemas? Are they free to show what they like?
  • Can people dress the way they want?
  • Can people express freely their opinions in the newspapers or through internet without being afraid?
  • Are people free to demonstrate in public?
  • Can journalists work freely?
  • Do people get information? How?
  • Is internet free?

Analyze the degree of freedom of expression

Working questions in the museum:

  • Can you find visible signs of freedom of expression in the exhibition? Is it possible to say something about the degree of freedom of expression in the society that is shown? Why? Why not?
  • Find something in the exhibition that illustrates that people use their freedom of expression. Explain.
  • Find something in the exhibition that illustrate the people´s freedom of expression is violated. Explain.
  • At the time the exhibition reflects: was freedom of expression protected by Bulgarian law? Was it protected in the Constitution or through legally binding international human rights conventions that the state had ratified?


To speak is not an easy thing, to remain silent is dangerous.
Proverb from Cun Ca Ki Ca Kalilu Tera, Abidjan: Editipn Edilis 2002