The World Loves Free Speech—Except When They’re Offended

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Freedom of expression wins strong endorsements around the world when people are asked, say researchers, so why have protections for speech consistently slipped for over a decade? Part of the problem is that many of those surveyed embrace a convenient attitude toward the issue: they support protections for speech of which they approve, but not of speech that offends them. Unfortunately, a right you’re willing to extend only to yourself and your allies is no right at all and leaves freedom available only to those who wield power.

“Support for free speech is generally expressed by great majorities in all countries when people are asked their opinion,” finds Who Cares About Free Speech?, a report recently published by Danish think tank Justitia, Columbia University’s Global Freedom of Expression, and Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science. In February of this year, researchers surveyed an average of 1,500 respondents each in 33 countries to come up with that seemingly encouraging result. The devil is in the details, though. 

“While citizens in most countries think that criticism of the government should be allowed, many people are unwilling to allow statements that are critical or insulting of particular groups, their religion, or the nation,” the authors add. “Moreover, citizens do not always prioritize free speech when there is a potential trade-off with other things they value, such as national security, good health, and the economy.”

Some of these exceptions are stark. Majorities in 14 countries say that governments should be able to prevent people from making “statements that are offensive to your religion and beliefs.” Most of the countries on that list aren’t a shock; is anybody surprised to discover that majorities in Egypt, Russia, and Turkey think that free speech protections shouldn’t extend to criticism of their own ideas? But Brazil is on that list, too. And even Germans are divided, with 47 percent agreeing that governments should be able to muzzle expression they find offensive.

Germany is similarly divided when it comes to insults to the national flag, with 48 percent supporting government restrictions—the same share as in Australia. But 56 percent in France agree, placing that country among the 21 countries where majorities say that governments should be able to prevent people from insulting the national symbol.

Germans and Australians, along with Britons, rank among the majorities in 22 countries who think that governments should be able to prevent people from saying things that are offensive to minorities. (Germany, by the way, is the birthplace of a new wave of Internet “hate speech” censorship laws sweeping the world.)

Majorities in Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, and Tunisia say that governments should be able to prevent people from making statements in support of homosexual relationships.

Majorities in 19 countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, say that government should be able to prevent media organizations from publishing information about “sensitive issues related to national security.” Will we have to just take officialdom’s word for it that suppressed articles were national security-related? The survey doesn’t say.

Given the exceptions that many people carve out in their generic endorsement of free speech, and that “public opinion about free speech (popular demand) tends to go hand-in-hand with the actual enjoyment of this right (government supply)” according to the survey, the consequences are no surprise.

“Global freedom of expression is in decline, now at its lowest for a decade” according to the 2019/2020 report from Article 19, a British organization named after the portion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights addressing free speech protections. “More than half of the world’s population – around 3.9 billion people – live in countries rated in crisis.”

The slide has been accelerated by the worsening condition for liberty in countries with large populations, including Bangladesh, China, India, Russia, and Turkey.

People suffering creeping censorship may gain new appreciation for shrinking liberty. Among the top ranked countries in Justitia’s Free Speech Index are Hungary and Venezuela. They rank well not because of their protections for citizens’ rights—Hungary has an elected but increasingly illiberal government while the totalitarianism of Venezuela’s socialist regime is limited only by its decaying resources—but because their residents voice strong support in the survey for the freedoms they’re losing.

Offering some comfort is that Americans are also highly ranked, at third place after only Norway and Denmark. Even on the contentious issue of social media, 29 percent of Americans say there should be no regulation, while 37 percent say any regulation should be done only by the social media companies themselves; only 34 percent want to government to play even a shared role in social media regulation.

On the other hand, 43 percent of Americans say their ability to speak freely about political matters in this country has worsened in the past 12 months, compared to 17 percent who think it has improved (40 percent say it is unchanged). That may foreshadow a long-term shift, since, as other researchers have found, younger Americans are less supportive of free speech. The consequences can be seen, in part, in the erosion of the ACLU as a civil liberties advocate, as younger staffers push it away from its traditional emphasis on freedom of expression.

Variance in support for free speech extends beyond age differences. “In the US, young people, women, the less educated, and Biden voters are generally more restrictive regarding free speech,” notes Who Cares About Free Speech? That said, while the strength of support varies in the U.S., majorities of men and women alike, and across ages, education levels, and partisan affiliations, still favor free speech.

Free speech isn’t the only quality of free societies eroding in recent years. 

“[D]emocracy has not been in robust health for some time,” The Economist‘s Democracy Index 2020 observed earlier this year. “In 2020 its strength was further tested by the outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic… Across the world in 2020, citizens experienced the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even in wartime).

Other sources report similar erosion of liberal democratic norms, accelerated by government power-grabs during the pandemic. Now we can add free speech to the mix, with populations in some places skeptical of core protections for expression. Government officials surprise nobody when they reach for expanded power; defeating them and reasserting fundamental freedoms will be difficult without popular support.

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