Joy Hyvärinen: Artistic freedom of expression

Questions related to freedom of expression can be controversial and challenging.

Artistic freedom of expression can be especially challenging. Art often tests limits set by society and art can generate strong emotions.

But artistic freedom of expression is part of the right to freedom of expression, a fundamental right that belongs to everyone. International agreements that protect freedom of expression also protect artistic freedom of expression.

The European Court of Human Rights has emphasised the important role of art in democracies.

Many actors and many factors can have a negative impact on artistic freedom of expression. For example, states which do not allow opposition or that only allow artistic activity that those in power have approved, legislation that prohibits certain types of expression, the power of large businesses, and self-censorship.

Commercial pressures can have a strong negative impact. Expectations that art sells well is often the most important goal. Commercial empires can control the process from the early stages of artistic work through to distribution, which gives them great power.

Artists and others in the arts sector work in very varying circumstances in different countries.

In many countries the authorities restrict artistic freedom of expression and violate the human rights of artists, for example in Russia, Afghanistan, Türkiye, Iran and Egypt.

Non-state actors, for example giant multinational internet companies, businesses that sponsor art and terrorist organisations can also have a large impact on artistic freedom of expression.

The situation is often particularly challenging for female artists and other artists who belong to vulnerable groups, for example sexual and gender minorities.

Read the English summary of the guide Artistic Freedom of Expression.

In the United States freedom of expression has strong protection. The First Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the government from restricting freedom of expression. This also protects artistic expression.

Despite strong constitutional protection, freedom of expression also faces many challenges in the United States. Artistic expression is often the target.

An intensifying censorship campaign directed at books is a growing concern in the United States.

Attempts to ban books or restrict their availability is not a new phenomenon in the United States.

For example, the award-winning children’s book ”And Tango makes three” has repeatedly been the subject of censorship attempts.

The book, published in 2005, tells the story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who hatch an egg and raise the little female penguin Tango. The book is based on real events at a zoo in New York.

The book was written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, with illustrations by Henry Cole.

Although attempts to ban books or restrict their availability is not a new phenomenon, freedom of expression organisations have expressed concerns about the intensifying campaign against books.

PEN America has investigated the rapidly growing problem in schools.

In the report ”Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools”, released in September 2022, PEN America warned of an organised movement against books, an intensifying campaign and a rapid increase in cases.

Read the report Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.

According to PEN America, the groups that are targeting books have different aims, but they have found a common cause in books.

PEN America has documented at least 50 groups that campaign against books. Eight of these groups have local or regional groups, which total at least 300.

The groups for example share lists of books that should be banned or send large numbers of participants to school meetings.

According to PEN America’s report, books were banned or access to them restricted because of content that dealt with for example race, sex or themes related to sexual and gender minorities.

Book bans or access restrictions have concerned famous writers, for example Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Atwood and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

Joy Hyvärinen is a member of Finnish PEN’s board.

PEN johtokunta