Freedom of Expression: What is acceptable and what is restricted?

The Correlation Between the Freedom of Expression and the Freedom of Belief

At the level of the European Union, freedom of belief and freedom of expression are given a great deal of attention and respect. Denmark prides itself on being an open society, characterized by a flexible structure, the freedom to believe what one chooses, and the widespread dissemination of information. The Danish Constitution states: "Everyone is entitled to publicly express his/her thoughts, in writing and speech." It is a society which encourages critical debate and respects diverse opinions.

The Danish Institute for Human Rights recently published their 2016-2017 Status Report which deemed Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Religion as two points of concern in Denmark. The complex interaction between these two freedoms is becoming more apparent in our diverse society, where cultural norms are being challenged by increased globalization. Denmark is facing a crossroads in maintaining a peaceful society, which upholds the values upon which the country is built, while also integrating diversity in a congruent way.

Most expression is completely harmless and, therefore, protected under the right to freedom of expression without interference by the state. However, in recognition that expression does indeed have the capacity to harm, Freedom of Expression is not an absolute right. One may freely express one’s self, but in doing so, one should not damage the rights or reputation of others, by making false and misleading statements. Unfortunately, this recommendation is largely ignored, and, thus, often not respected across all levels, whether in governmental institutions, the mass media, or on the individual level. 

The understanding and application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be based on morality, which includes the criteria of the discernment of right action from wrong, the focus of which is on the individual and his/her set of values, which guide him/herself in his/her life. This then recognizes the rights and responsibilities of the individual to determine their own code of morals. The correct understanding of the Declaration, thus, takes the issue of what is right and wrong to a high level.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, thought, and belief are, therefore, a case of morality and we need to put them together in order to reduce conflicts. For example, islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia are conflicts which arise through the expression of points of view which are not in accordance with respect to the reputation and dignity of others, when an individual speaks without understanding the real situation. However, for those individuals truly adhering to the principles of a spiritual path, the outlined freedoms are implicit because of the degree of morality engrained in faith. This helps them choose the right course of action.

Combining the freedom of conscience thought and belief and the freedom of expression, we see the need for a thorough analysis of the connection, and education in this, thus, preventing conflicts and misunderstandings between different traditions, religions, and activists.