Are there limits to freedom of expression on social networks? In recent years, the right to freedom of expression on the internet and, specifically, on the different existing digital platforms or social networks, has acquired special relevance given that these are spaces in which millions of people express their ideas on a daily basis almost without any kind of control.
What is freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right inherent to human beings and recognised in Article 20 of the Spanish Constitution, which clearly stipulates that the rights “to freely express and disseminate thoughts, ideas and opinions by word, writing or any other means of reproduction” are recognised and protected.
This right is also regulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “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”.
In this sense, freedom of expression encompasses freedom of opinion, freedom of information, academic freedom and freedom of the press. It is a right that is essential for active participation in a free and democratic society. According to international law, for a society to be considered free and democratic, limitations on freedom of expression must be minimal, proportionate and justified.
What are the limits to freedom of expression?
A priori, freedom of expression ends the moment this right infringes or collides with another person’s fundamental right. Therefore, like any right, its recognition also implies duties and responsibilities, and therefore has limits.
The most common grounds on which freedom of expression would be curtailed by the State or, alternatively, subject to complaints by the aggrieved person are, inter alia, acts of freedom of expression aimed at defamation, libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, incitement to violence, hatred, discrimination or acts of terrorism, etc.
However, when two fundamental rights such as, for example, freedom of expression and the right to honour and dignity collide, the Courts must weigh both rights and, taking into account the specific case, determine whether the conduct in question constitutes a lawful exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of expression and whether the overriding value of freedom of expression would be justified.
Freedom of expression in social networks
There has been much debate about the freedom of circulation of content on social networks which, on numerous occasions, is posted anonymously. As well as the legal implications or responsibilities that derive from such actions, both for those who post them and for the platforms that host such information.
Generally speaking, social networks are a channel where the same crimes can be perpetrated as anywhere else, with the exception that there is no specific legal regulation to punish these conducts.
In this regard, it should be noted that recent jurisprudence is clear that freedom of expression is not, in any case, an indiscriminate right to insult and that the perpetrators of such acts will be liable for the offences committed.
Likewise, the platforms or social networks on which this type of crime takes place may also be liable when they know unequivocally and effectively that a violation of a fundamental right of a person or user has occurred or is occurring and do not act with due diligence to compensate or minimise the damage caused to the victim, for example, by deleting the offensive publications, blocking the account of the user who is violating the rights of others, etc.
In conclusion, there is a fine line between freedom of expression and the commission of certain crimes that undermine the integrity and good name of another person, so that any person who is a victim of such a crime through social networks can seek redress by filing a complaint or lawsuit with the competent judicial authority.