Freedom of Speech outside the US?

The flag burning thread made me think of a question I’ve had for a while:

The great thing about living in the USA is supposed to be the freedom to express myself any way I please. But is this really that much of a problem in most other countries?

I understand that the government of, say, China, can and does put the smack down on citizens when they express unofficial ideas. It seems to me, though, that China would be the exception rather than the rule. What about, say, England? Canada? France? Spain? Italy? Brazil? Do these countries have limitations on the freedom of expression?

Or is the big deal the fact that we are guaranteed that freedom by the Bill of Rights? In other words, these other countries couldlimit the freedom of expression, but don’t?

Sorry if this is more of a General Question.

Dr. J

I know Canada and Britain do. For example, there are anti-hate-speech laws in Canada that would never pass the First Amendment muster here in the U.S. Britain has (or at least had recently) anti-obscenity laws that wouldn’t pass muster either. We’re not just talking about laws against profanity, but laws against making fun of religion (Monty Python occasionally was targeted by some of these).

Two laws I know of limit freedom of speech in Britain and Germany.

1)In the UK it is against the law for newspapers to publish pro-IRA editorials.

2)In Germany distributing pro-nazi propaganda is punishible by imprisonment.

The intent of these laws is understandable, and without malice, but both would be found unconstitutional in the US.

There are plenty of countries where criticism of the government (usually military dictatorships, such as in many African nations) is not only illegal, it’s harmful to one’s health.

Some countries have more important freedoms than freedom of speech – such as, freedom from evil thoughts.

The United States has some of the most permissive freedom-of-speech laws in the world (which I think is a good thing). In Europe, you often can’t get away with what is perfectly legal in the United States.

In Germany, if you walk up to a police officer and call him or her a “bull,” you’ll almost certainly be arrested. In addition, if you get in a traffic accident and call the other driver a demeaning, obscene name, and the other driver can find witnesses, you can be sued and forced to pay the other driver a settlement because of what you called him.

In the U.K., it’s a crime to insult the royal family (or at least it used to be when I lived there back in the '80s).

The American legal tradition is built more on individual liberties and freedoms. The European model leans more toward fraternity and equality. It’s a slightly different orientation. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are less free elsewhere, but you may have fewer liberties outside of America.

Maybe there countries that allow their citizens as many liberties as we do in the United States, but I’m not aware of any.

In Canada, freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights. Notwithstanding, the dissemination of hate literature, certain kinds of pornography, and the advocation of genocide is a crime. (I agree with the last law but not the rest.)

One more occurred to me: In Japan, you can be sued for “insult.” Not libel or slander, mind you, just “insult.” In the U.S., you can call your enemy a “f***ing $#!thead @$$hole” and there’s nothing they can do about it. (In fact, Penn Jillette once told me that this is why he refers to “psychics” this way – 'cus he gets his point across with profanity and they can’t sue him.) But in Japan, you could be sued for.

I don’t know where I heard this, or if it’s true,but is it against the law in the US to allude to highjacking or bombing a plane while your in a plane?

A classic example of the effect of our First Amendment on our society is American libel/slander law. In England (if I haven’t totally forgotten my basic tort law background), you can be sued for slander/libel, and, to successfully defend against the suit, you have to prove what you said is true. In the US, on the other hand, the person claiming you libeled/slandered him/her must establish that what you said ISN’T true. Now what is the difference? Suppose I say that Smith stole money from Jones. The evidence available to support that idea is ambiguous. In England, I might well be in trouble. In America, I will have a better chance of a verdict in my favor because Smith may not be able to prove he didn’t steal the money from Jones.

Also, note that libel/slander laws protect statements made about public figures in the US to an even greater degree.

At university in England as a politics student I wrote a 3000 word essay on the UK’s speech laws. They are ridiculous. There is a law there called the Official Secrets Act which (I’m oversimplifying a bit here) basically makes it illegal to disclose any official information whose disclosure is not specifically authorized. The example critics use is that it would be illegal for The Times to publish the number of cups of tea a minister had at a cabinet meeting.

The Northern Ireland situation has given rise to all manner of restrictions, the most absurd being the one that said Sinn Fein members’ voices could not be broadcast. Their statements could be - and were - just not their actual voices.

There are several other restrictive laws that I can’t remember (I graduated several years ago, and no longer have a copy of the essay); anyone who’s interested should research the case of the ex-MI5 agent who wrote Spycatcher. IIRC, the British government used every law in the book, and even completely reinterpreted a few old laws (they can do that there - would be a complete due process violation in America) in order to stop that book being published.

BTW, DSYoungEsq is correct about the UK libel laws. And at the time I was studying there the government was trying to pass another law subjecting journalists to libel charges for what they wrote about statements made in Parliament. I don’t know if that law passed, but given the presumption of guilt I found the idea pretty horrifying.

Never regret what seemed like a good idea at the time.

Please insert “without specific authorization” at the end of the first paragraph, above.

Never regret what seemed like a good idea at the time.

Canada’s constitutional protections aren’t on very solid footing and can often be overridden. We have all kinds of laws preventing certain forms of speech. One example is that a judge can issue a media gag order on any coverage of a criminal case. They did that during the Homolka murder trials, leading some Canadians to travel across the border to buy newspapers so they could find out what was going on.


Seems to be a lot of that going around. Last summer, a canoeist took a spill in the Rifle River (Standish, MI) and commenced to using the f-word twenty-five times or so in front of some young children. He was convicted of violating a 102-year-old Michigan law against using obscene language in front of children. $75 fine and a few days in a child-care program, IIRC. The ACLU is involved now.

A friend of mine spent 9 months working in Germany for the Deutche Bank (some of his sicker friends claimed that he was in the “Gold Tooth Section”), and is a collector of military medals. He found that it is illegal to display the swastika in Germany, except in very limited circumstances (such as an accredited museum, for example). It is also illegal to sell items with a swastika (which is not to say that such things are not displayed and/or sold; just that it is against the law).

I recall the British proscription on broadcasting the voices of IRA members/spokespeople, and have myself seen a BBC news report of a Gerry Adams speech, which had been dubbed by an actor (who had an Irish accent). Very surreal.

While we’re on the subject, two years ago,a Canadian journalist was sentenced to three months in jail for “scandalizing” the court in Malaysia. (FYI, he was reporting on a case involving the wife of an appellate court judge acting on behalf of her son, who was booted from his high school debate team for alleged cheating.)On Saturday, an appeals court upheld the conviction but trimmed the sentence to six weeks. Actually, the court allowed him to remain free until his next appeal but they wouldn’t release his passport, so he opted to start his punishment now so that he may get out ASAP.

Freedom of expression is protected by s. 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but we take a less absolutist position on some aspects of it than in the U.S.

For example, courts can issue a temporary ban on the publication of evidence, as happened in the Homolka trial, dealing with the kidnapping-rape-murder of two teenage girls. The reason for such bans is not to hide the information from the public, but to balance the public’s right to know against the right of an accused to a fair jury trial. In the Homolka case, she ratted on her husband, Paul Bernardo, and pled out. His trial was set to go later.

The judge was concerned that the atrocious details of the crime, if released in advance, would poison the jury pool, making a fair trial impossible. The right to a fair, impartial jury trial is equally guaranteed, by sections 7 and 11 of the Charter. So, the court decided that a temporary ban, until the Bernardo trial began, was a reasonable way to balance the two rights.

On the issue of hate crimes, the courts have similarly said that freedom of expression is not an absolute, and have upheld both criminal and civil sanctions for hate crimes and hate literature. Again, the courts have relied on other provisions of the Constitution, notably the principle of the inherent worth and equality of each individual in our society. Hate literature and hate marches, beyond a certain point, undermines the basic principle of individual equality and respect in our society. As well, in much hate activities, there is an implicit threat of violence. So, the burning of crosses and spewing venom about deporting the “mud people” (their nasty phrase, not mine), can be the object of both criminal and civil sanctions, depending on the facts of the case.

Regarding freedom of speech in Europe, I never had a problem with it. I spent the most time in Italy, about 14 years, and the papers there used to print absolutely everything under the sun. Drugs, sex, politics are all discussed candidly and openly in periodicals, TV shows, clubs, and so on. In most of Europe, such extreme censorship laws as exist in Britain, Canada, and the U.S. simply do not exist. If you don’t suppress something until it becomes an infection, people will learn to deal with it and be more secure in their freedom. That way you avoid the fascinating anti-control paranoia that you have in the U.S.

On another note, the X-files is a great show (and product of this culture), and I cannot imagine it coming out of any country other than the U.S.

I heard that most critics (including Chigago Reader’s Rosenbaum) are outraged about the digital censorship of sex scenes in Kubric’s last movie, “Eyes wide shut”.