Anyone interested in exploring the boundaries of freedom of expression should start with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The ICCPR is a United Nations Treaty that outlines the ideal goals by which governments should operate to both provide safety for the society while ensuring individual human rights regarding freedom of speech and the press.
No country considers freedom of expression an absolute. For instance, all societies prohibit untruthful defamation of reputation or the incitement to imminent lawless action. However, freedom of expression is an important human right that must be protected against overly aggressive states usually seeking to ensure stability.
The United Nations treaty acknowledges the need for balance between these two interests by creating a framework to help guide policy makers in developing regulations around freedom of speech. Section 19 of the ICCPR states:
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 or of public health or morals.
Therefore, this covenant explicitly guarantees freedom of speech but expressly notes which areas justify limits being placed upon it: Protection of reputation (defamation), national security and public order, and public health and morals.
It’s important to note what’s not included — licensing of journalists, laws against false news and bans on insulting or offensive language.
The ICCPR offers any nation struggling with finding proper boundaries of free expression with a useful blueprint.