Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one’s thoughts and ideas without fear of reprisal or legal consequences.
Many different forms of expression fall under the umbrella term freedom of speech, and these include everything from written communication to social media posts to the arts to political protests to the burning of the American flag.
This is not to say that freedom of speech is limited to verbal communication. The term freedom of speech is more often used to represent this wider interpretation of the term.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the legislation of most countries guarantee the right to free expression. In reality, however, free speech is protected in certain nations while it is suppressed in others.
It is protected in many of the world’s most liberal nations, but under totalitarian regimes, communist regimes, and other oppressive states, freedom of expression is routinely curtailed.
In certain cases, free expression may go too far. The question of where to draw the line between free speech and information that is insulting, dangerous, or destructive is still being debated.
Since social media allows people to propagate harmful disinformation, bully others, and promote hatred and intolerance via their use of free speech, questions have been raised about whether free speech may do more damage than good.
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165 countries have freedom of expression
The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance has a database called the Global State of Democracy Indices, which records 116 measures of democratic freedom in 165 different nations.
The GSDI’s eight free speech indicators are whether the government imposes censorship on the media, if one’s cultural expression is suppressed and whether men and women are at ease speaking their minds in public.
When all of these measures are put together, you get one number that ranges from 0.00 to 1.00. If you’d like to see the entire list of scores from 2020, click on the table below this one.
GSDI 2020’s Top 30 Countries with the Most Freedom of Speech/Expression:
- Denmark — .95
- Belgium — .87
- Finland, Switzerland, Uruguay — .86
- New Zealand, Portugal, Sweden — .85
- France — .84
- Canada, Estonia — .83
- Argentina, Austria, Ireland, Norway — .82
- Italy — .80
- Australia, Germany, Jamaica, United Kingdom — .79
- Czechia, Iceland — .78
- Latvia, Netherlands, Slovakia — .77
- Costa Rica, Barbados — .75
- Luxembourg, Peru, United States — .74
In the United States, everyone has the right to free expression.
Freedom of speech in America is not perfect. Yet, despite this, Americans are among the world’s most supportive people regarding free speech, press freedom, and the ability to access information online without fear of government censorship.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that Congress shall pass no legislation… abridging the freedom of expression, making it a basic value in the country.
For example, the right to express oneself via symbols, to use offensive words and phrases, to promote commercial goods and services (with certain limits), and to refuse to salute the flag are all examples of freedom of speech in the United States.
Tolerance for offensive speech is also higher among Americans than in most of the world’s population.
The findings of two recent research on the importance and amount of support individuals put on freedom of speech show this mindset.
For starters, a 2015 Pew Research Center polled people in 38 nations about their views on free speech, asking them to rate each topic on a scale from 0 (least support) to 8 (most support). At 5.73, the United States had the highest average score.
An independent think tank, Columbia University in New York, and Aarhus University collaborated with Justitia to perform second research on criminal justice reform. After Norway (80) and Denmark (80), the United States came in third place (out of a possible 100) with a score of 78.
The following are the top 10 countries where citizens most value free speech.
|Rank||Justitia 2021 (0-100)||Pew 2015 (0-8)|
|1||Norway — 80||United States — 5.73|
|2||Denmark — 79||Spain — 5.62|
|3||United States — 878||Spain — 5.62|
|4||Sweden — 78||Mexico — 5.42|
|5||Hungary — 75||Venezuela — 5.17|
|6||United Kingdom — 74||Canada — 5.08|
|7||Venezuela — 74||Australia — 4.94|
|8||Spain — 73||Argentina — 4.83|
|9||Japan — 71||South Africa — 4.80|
|10||Argentina — 70||United Kingdom — 4.78|
Free speech around the world
In general, the Western Hemisphere countries are more tolerant than the Eastern Hemisphere countries, according to the 2015 Pew study, with Mexico (5.42) and Canada (5.08) placing respectively fourth and sixth.
With a median score of 5.66, Poland came in second, followed by Spain, which came in third with a score of 5.62. Senegal (2,06), Jordan (2,53), and Pakistan had the lowest levels of support for freedom of speech among the nations examined (2.78).
As part of a larger study on democracy in 2019, Pew Research asked whether respondents believed their right to free speech was safe and protected. Only 73% of respondents in the United States believed that free expression was adequately protected, which may be surprising.
This put the United States in the last position behind nations like Canada (79 percent), the Netherlands (84 percent), and Indonesia (86 percent), all of which scored higher than the U.S.
The limitations of free speech (and the repression that comes with them)
There are limitations to one’s right to free speech. But these aren’t the only things you may be accused of: defamation, invasion of privacy, invasion of copyright and trade secret rights, and even perjury. People aren’t allowed to instigate violence, such as yelling fire in a packed cinema.
Students are prohibited from making or distributing obscene items or making obscene speeches at school-sponsored events. In certain nations and conditions, threats, racist comments, and other racially or religiously intolerant sentiments are also illegally actionable.
Also See: Countries With Death Penalty 2022
However, although many countries consider freedom of expression a basic right, others significantly restrict its use. North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus are some of the most censored countries in the world.
Authoritarian leaders that perceive the free flow of information as a threat to their power have effectively cut off these nations’ citizens from the rest of the world.
When it comes to spreading information and ideas, governments deploy a combination of censorship and intimidation, as well as state-controlled media and internet censorship.
|Country||Freedom of Expression Score 2020||Free Speech Index 2021||Free Expression Index 2015||Free Speech Protection 2019||2022 Population|
|Trinidad and Tobago||0.6700||1406.5850|
|Papua New Guinea||0.5900||9292.1690|
|Central African Republic||0.5500||5016.6780|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||0.4600||3249.3170|
|United Arab Emirates||0.3300||10081.7850|
|Republic of the Congo||0.3200||5797.8050|