AAI Position Statement - Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is an essential human righti and a foundational principle of a free society.

There is an inherent conflict between freedom of expression and the desire of some religious people to have their beliefs treated with deference. Commonly, restrictions on freedom of expression are sought through anti-blasphemy laws, laws against “incitement to religious hatred” or the use of violence and intimidation against those who are claimed to cause religious offence.

Given the diversity of religious worldviews, offence is the inevitable outcome of the critical assessment of religious or irreligious perspectives. As a subjective concept, offence is a not a reasonable basis for restricting freedom of expression; to do so would essentially render freedom of expression meaningless and limit the critical discussion of ideas to whichever perspective happens to be supported by the legal system or physical strength present in any country.

Further, restrictions on freedom of expression on the basis of religious offence privilege religious views above other types of views – such restrictions provide a shield against critical analysis and comment, yet no rational basis exists for protecting religious views when other contentious social or political views are not protected.

If a society is to value and respect all its citizens it must unequivocally stand against those who seek to limit offence through violence, intimidation or legislation. No ideology, religious or otherwise, should be permitted to dictate that certain views are exempt from scrutiny, critical analysis, comment, satire or mockery. A view that cannot withstand such examination is not credible and should be re-considered by the holder, not protected by laws or defended with violence or intimidation.

Any offence caused by views being challenged, criticised or even mocked – whether a person is religious or not – is the negligible, but vital, price of human freedom.

i Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 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 regardless of frontiers. Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: 1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. 3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.