Global Freedom of Expression

López Álvarez v. Honduras

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    February 1, 2006
  • Outcome
    Reparations for individual or entity sued for exercising FoE, Violation of a Rule of International Law, ACHR or American Declaration of the Rights and Duties Violation
  • Case Number
    Serie C No.141
  • Region
    Latin-America and Caribbean
  • Judicial Body
    Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)
  • Type of Law
    International/Regional Human Rights Law
  • Tags
    Public Officials, Specially protected speech, Discrimination, Public service/Public goods, Equality

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This case is available in additional languages:    View in: Español

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) held that the prohibition to speak an indigenous language (Garifuna) is both a violation of the right to freedom of expression and a discriminatory act. Mr. López Álvarez was incarcerated and during that time, the director of the detention facility where he was located forbid prisoners to speak Garifuna, an indigenous language. Consequently, Mr. López Álvarez was impeded from speaking his mother tongue. The Court held that such a restriction on freedom of expression was unnecessary, unjustified, and particularly serious because “language [is] one of the most important elements of identity of any people, precisely because it guarantees the expression, diffusion and transmission of their culture” [para. 171].


Mr. Alfredo López Álvarez, a member of the Garifuna community of Honduras was detained by State authorities and processed “for the crime of possession and illegal trafficking of narcotics”. López Álvarez was held in pretrial detention for six years and four months together with convicted felons in an overcrowded prison and under unhealthy conditions.

During his detention, the director of the criminal facility prohibited the Garifuna community from speaking in their mother language. This order included the prohibition to speak Garifuna between inmates as well as with the people that visited them.

In this case the Court addresses several rights violations regarding the criminal proceedings and imprisonment of Mr. López Álvarez, including the violation of the right to freedom of expression.

Decision Overview

The IACtHR had to decide whether the prohibition to speak a mother tongue imposed by the director of a criminal facility was a violation of the right to freedom of expression.

The Court recalled that the right to freedom of expression has an individual dimension that consists in the right to impart information and a social dimension that consists in the right to seek, receive, and disseminate information and ideas of all types. In the Court’s view, both dimensions are equally important and should be simultaneously protected to guarantee the right to freedom of thought and expression.

The Court emphasized that Article 13(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights expressly protects the freedom to orally impart information. It highlighted that the right to speak is “one of the mainstays of freedom of expression […] and that [it] involves the right of people to use the language of their choice when expressing their thoughts” [para. 164]. It also recalled that the expression and dissemination of thoughts and ideas were indivisible. Therefore, any restriction to the possibility of imparting information limited directly and proportionally the right to express freely.

For the Court, any “restriction on the right to freedom of expression is legal under Article 13 (12) of the American Convention if it is necessary to fulfil an imperative public interest that clearly prevails over the social need for the full enjoyment of the right Article 13 guarantees. The States should choose the least restrictive alternative to achieve that public interest. The above applies to legislation, as well as administrative decisions, and acts, or decisions of any other nature, that is, to any manifestation of state power” [para. 165].

The Court also referred to the penitentiary authorities. It highlighted that these authorities exercised a strong control over the people subjected to their custody and, therefore, they needed to guarantee “adequate detention conditions in a democratic society that ensure the dignity and the exercise of any other right not related to the deprivation of liberty” [para. 167].

The Court considered that the prohibition to speak their mother tongue, issued by the director of the criminal facility, “attacked the individuality of the inmates and did not obey to security conditions or treatment needs” [para. 166]. The Court considered the State’s punitive power did not allow unjustified or illegal limitations to “the freedom of the people to express themselves through any means and in the language chosen by them” [para. 168].

In the Court’s view, the prohibition was especially serious because “the mother tongue represent[ed] an element of identity of Mr. Alfredo López Álvarez as a Garifuna and is the language spoken by the minority group he belongs to. In this way, the prohibition affected his personal dignity as a member of that community” [para. 169]. The Court stated that States must evaluate the elements that differentiate indigenous community from the rest of the population in terms of protecting their cultural identities. According to the Court “language is one of the most important elements of identity of any people, precisely because it ensures the expression, dissemination and transmission of their culture” [para. 171].

To conclude, the restriction to speak his own language violated Mr. López Álvarez’s right to freedom of expression under the American Convention on Human Rights, and represented an act of discrimination against him.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

In this decision, the Inter-American Court recognized that the right to use one’s language of choice is part of the right to freedom of expression. It also restated its previous decisions according to which the expression and dissemination of ideas are indivisible.

Moreover, in this case, the Court recognized that the mother tongue represents one of the most important elements of the identity of a people, precisely because it guarantees the expression, dissemination, and transmission of culture. From this case on, Catalina Botero, as Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression for the IACHR, included in the category of specially protected speech those related with the identity of the person as the linguistic identity or gender identity.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

  • ACHR, art. 13
  • ACHR, art. 24
  • IACtHR, Palamara Iribarne v. Chile, ser. C No. 135 (2005)
  • IACtHR, Ricardo Canese v. Paraguay, ser. C No. 111 (2004)

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The Inter-American Court decisions are binding for the State and set human rights standards for all State Parties to the American Convention in applicable cases.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:


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