Freedom of speech is the right for an individual or community to express any opinions without censorship or restraint and without fear of retaliation or legal sanction. This is not limited to “speech” specifically as it includes other forms of expression. There is an ongoing debate about where to draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments. Especially in the age of social media, concerns have arisen over whether freedom of speech is causing more harm than it is good.
Freedom of speech is a right preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is granted formal recognition by the laws of most nations; however, the degree to which this right is upheld varies greatly from one country to another.
In the United States, freedom of speech is more widely accepted than in any other country. A 38-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2015 found that Americans are among the most supportive of free speech, freedom of the press, and the right to use the Internet without government censorship. Furthermore, Americans are much more tolerant of offensive speech than people in other nations. In general, the survey showed that countries in the Western Hemisphere are more tolerant than countries in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Researchers asked participants of 38 countries a series of five questions with answers ranging from 0-8. Zero representing the least support for freedom of expression and 8 representing the most supportive for freedom of expression. A median score was calculated for each country.
The United States received the highest score of 5.73. Freedom of speech is no stranger to freedom of speech, as the First Amendment protects freedom of speech: “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech.” In the U.S., freedom of speech includes the right to not to speak (specifically, the right to not salute the flag), to engage in symbolic speech, to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages, and to advertise commercial products and professional services (with some restrictions).
Freedom of speech does have restrictions. These include, but are not limited to, libel, slander, incitement, copyright violation, trade secrets, and perjury. A person may not incite action that would harm others, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. A person may not make or distribute obscene materials and students may not make an obscene speech at a school-sponsored event.
While many nations acknowledge freedom of speech as a fundamental right and allow their people to voice their opinions and ideas freely, this is not the case in some nations. Some of the most censored nations in the world are North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria, and Belarus. Citizens of these countries are virtually isolated by authoritarian rulers who see access to information as a threat to their rule. The media is silenced and highly censored and restrictive laws, fear, and intimidation are used to prevent the spread of information.