Freedom of speech around the world

There is often talk, particularly among Americans, about freedoms and who has more of them. I have lived in the US, France, and Germany, and have traveled extensively elsewhere, so I want to make some comments based on my understanding of the different tradeoffs in these places. I may write additional posts, but first I want to cover freedom of speech.

United States

Americans like to talk about freedom, but in reality they have given up more than a lot of countries. Americans give up freedoms mostly in direct exchange for the feeling of security. Note that this doesn’t often translate into actual security, as many of the programs that suck up American freedoms cannot demonstrate any positive outcomes. However, freedom of speech is a glaring exception.

There are many in the US who are fighting for censorship, with arguments that hate speech isn’t covered by the first amendment (it is) and uninformed references to the “fire in a crowded theater” quote. Their efforts have been slightly successful, as we are seeing some actions being taken against people for what should be protected speech. For example, public universities have been really going down a bad path lately. Ultimately these people are OK with limits on speech, as long as they get to define the limits.

Additionally, police action is often not on the side of free speech. There have been many examples of military-style crowd control to intimidate protesters. There are also plenty of examples of police beating people up and arresting them for verbal insults.

That said, the courts often come down on the correct side (in my view) of this issue, finding that the government cannot place limits on objectionable content. In the US, speech is instead supposed to be regulated by society. The government cannot stop you from saying things unless they are credible threats or defamation (which must be believable, harmful, and false), but they also offer no protection against repercussions from your fellow citizens. Obviously that citizen can’t go violating other laws when giving payback, but you get the idea. Things aren’t perfect, but this is one issue on which I believe the US really shines as compared to the rest of the “free world.” It’s a shame that so many people are trying to ruin it.


I was surprised to learn that there really isn’t free speech in Europe. Every government over here seems intent on defining lines and limits on what speech is allowed. Britain is generally known to be the worst offender, with laws against all sorts of speech that might disturb the feelings of any subset of sensitive citizens. I’ll comment a little more on Germany and France, as those are the ones I have the most experience with. But note that the laws are not very accessible to non-native speakers so I don’t always know them with great precision.

Germany’s big thing, with regards to speech, is that you cannot deny the holocaust or say anything antisemitic (or other types of “hate” speech). This seems to actually be the case around Europe, and I understand their history is a bit different, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have eliminated such groups. Germany also has some, let’s say ridiculous, limits on insulting people. You quite literally cannot call names in Germany, and the truthfulness of a statement is not a defense. While I don’t condone limits on speech, I must say that Germany is a very civil society.

French speech laws are similar to those in Germany, though they seem to have less emphasis on the personal attacks (i.e. you may be less likely to be sued for calling a name). Worse than a normal personal attack is insulting an employee of the government, an activity that receives great protection in the US. One can also not legally insult the flag or anthem. Germany does have a law against desecration of the flag, but I think the French law differs in that verbal insults, for example, would be illegal too. Think about that: They allow “free” speech, but one cannot fully mount a campaign against the government (certainly not its agents), which is arguably the most important reason to have protected speech. France has also been getting in trouble lately (after the Paris attacks) because of the lines they have drawn regarding religious insults. This is the danger when you start to draw lines. Once you draw them, every special interest group wants them moved. Finally, it is also illegal to publish anything promoting the use of drugs, which can limit arguments about reforming drug policy. So, ultimately, France has left setting limits on speech in the hands of the majority, which is a very dangerous move. Instead of “je suis Charlie,” they should say “je suis hypocrite.”

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