What is the difference between free speech rights in the U.S. and free speech in other democracies?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In general, the right to free speech in the United States is more extensive than the right to free speech in many other democracies.  This is not universally true, but there are many countries that are clearly democratic and which have more restrictions on the freedom of speech than the US does.  Let us look at a few examples that illustrate this idea.

In some other democracies, there are laws against what might be called hate speech.  In England, for example, it is a crime to engage in speech that would tend to incite racial hatred.  The same type of law exists in Germany as well.  By contrast, the US Supreme Court has struck down laws against hate speech.  Here in the US, the attitude is that all speech is fair game, even if it is hateful to some individuals.  That is why, for example, it is legal for Nazis to parade in Jewish neighborhoods or for the Westboro Baptist Church to celebrate at the funerals of American servicepeople. 

In some other democracies, there is less tolerance of speech (or speech-like actions) that have to do with religion.  For example, in Germany it is illegal to defame religion in a way that is likely to disturb public peace.  This caused the arrest and conviction of a man who printed the words “The Koran, the Holy Koran” on toilet paper, which he then distributed.  At the same time, it is also illegal to engage in speech (or speech-like actions) that do too much to promote religion.  For this reason, it is illegal for public workers to wear religious symbols while they are at work.  The same sort of law exists in France.  These are actions that would not be banned in the United States.

It is harder to sue people for libel in the United States than in some other democracies.  One example of such a country is the United Kingdom.  Because the UK’s libel laws are so much looser than the US’s laws, Congress has passed legislation that bans American courts from enforcing libel judgments handed down in that country.

Finally, there are some countries that ban specific ideas.  Germany is perhaps the greatest example of this.  Because of their history, there is a ban on speech that glorifies the Nazi Party and on speech that denies or diminishes the importance of the Holocaust.  By contrast, the United States does not have any such bans on the dissemination of particular ideas. 

To be sure, there are those who claim that some aspects of speech in the US are curtailed relative to other countries.  Some say (though others would dispute) that the US has a poor record of protecting the speech rights of journalists. In addition, it is clearly not correct to say that people in countries like Germany or the UK have significantly less of a right to free speech than Americans.  However, it is at least possible to argue that Americans are allowed to engage in more  kinds of speech than citizens of many other democracies. 

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