The child 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 the child's choice.
The exercise of this right may 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; or
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
What does article 13 say?
Article 13 enshrines children's right to freedom of expression. The first part of the article upholds children's right to 'seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds', in a range of formats and across borders. The second part limits restrictions that can be placed on this right.
Article 13 is one of a group of CRC articles setting out civil and political rights for children.
Why is this important?
Freedom of expression for children is rarely talked about, but it is an important indicator of the degree to which children are treated as rights holders. It is by expressing their feelings and opinions that children are able to describe the ways in which their rights are respected or infringed and learn to stand up for the rights of others. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 19) enshrine this right for everyone, but the inclusion of a specific article on freedom of expression in the CRC emphasises that civil and political rights apply equally to children as to other human beings. After all, in order for societies to evolve in an open and democratic way, the views of all population groups must be represented, not just those of the most powerful.
What are the problems?
In many countries, people in general are prevented from expressing themselves freely. And while in some countries the internet is opening up new opportunities for human rights defenders (including children), journalists and the general public to express themselves and share new ideas, in others States are clutching at threats to national security as a pretext for closing in on civil and political rights (Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Gambia).
In some countries, clamp-downs target minority groups who are perceived to be outside the control of the State - or presented as such to consolidate power and national identity. In Chile, for instance, members of the Mapuche indigenous group, including children, have been detained under the terrorism act for claiming their right to ancestral lands.
Elsewhere, in places where adults' right to express themselves freely is well established, traditional attitudes towards children maintain that they should be 'seen but not heard'. The Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concern to States about the lack of legal guarantees for under-18s as a result of traditional attitudes in the family and other settings which make it difficult for children to seek and impart information freely (Georgia).
Child protection arguments have often been used as an excuse to restrict children's civil and political rights and legitimise discrimination. In 2007, for instance, the European Committee of Social Rights, which monitors States' compliance with the European Social Charter, found that Croatia's limited curriculum on sex education discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. But access to honest and objective information is a perquisite for children's ability to make free and informed choices.
Nevertheless, in spite of the obstacles, children's presence in protest movements across the world in recent years testifies to their desire to have their voices heard, and their rights respected, on matters from who governs them to respect for and control over their own bodies (Chile, UK).
What should States do about it?
The Committee on the Rights of the Child has said that it is not sufficient that freedom of expression is guaranteed in a country's Constitution; children's right to free expression should be explicitly guaranteed in legislation.
Children's right to freedom of expression is closely connected to article 14 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), 15 (freedom of association) and 17 (access to information). It also has close ties with article 12 (children's right to be heard). The Committee's General Comment on article 12 notes the similarities between these two articles, but clarifies their differences. While article 12 imposes an obligation on States to institute the legal framework and mechanisms necessary to help children take an active part in all matters affecting them, the right to freedom of expression entails no such action. Instead, States should refrain from interfering with this right and seek to foster an environment that respects children's right to express their views.
Everyone has a responsibility to encourage children to express themselves. But guidance should always be exercised in the context of the CRC as a whole and must respect and encourage children's capacity to make their own decisions from an early age, and have their views taken into account in accordance with their age and maturity, in line with articles 5 (evolving capacities) and 12 (the right to be heard). Ensuring children have access to information from a variety of sources is key to helping them make up their own minds about what they think and how they express themselves.
Play is one of the ways in which children develop the ability to express themselves early on. It is therefore vital that they have opportunities to play and participate in recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (article 31). Efforts to encourage children's participation should also encompass the right of children from minority groups to their own culture, to practise and profess their own religion and to use their own language (article 30).
Children's right to freedom of expression has also been analysed in depth elsewhere. The Committee's Day of General Discussion on the media, for example, promoted children's participatory rights in the media. Meanwhile, the general comment on the aims of education stipulates that children should have space to express their views not only on the content of education, but also on teaching methods and in the school environment more generally. Elsewhere, the Committee has expressed concern about restrictions on wearing religious symbols in schools as a violation of article 13. Read more in article 14 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion).
There may be some restrictions on article 13 - for instance, in relation to violent and pornographic material - but these must conform to the limitations set out in the CRC. In addition, strict rules govern the release of information in the media that may lead to the identification of particular children. But any restrictions must always be balanced with children's right to receive and impart information and be set out in law.
In other documents, the Committee's General Comment on HIV and AIDS stipulates that children should be given the opportunity to speak out about their experiences. A General Comment on the rights of children with disabilities emphasises the importsnce of this right. This is reinforced by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 21) which specifies that people with disabilities should be able to express themselves 'through all forms of communication of their choice'. Rule 13 of the Rules on the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty states that children in detention should enjoy aspects of this right not incompatible with the deprivation of liberty.
This page forms part of a guide to children's rights as set out in the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The guide explains what these rights mean, why they are important and what States should do to guarantee them.