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. Despite its name, freedom of speech is not specifically limited to verbal communication—rather, it also includes other forms of expression, such as written communication, social media posts (facebook, TikTok, YouTube), the arts (photography, stage plays, musical performances, painting, dance), personal actions (political protests, flag burning), and so on. To reflect this broader definition, freedom of speech is often referred to as freedom of expression.
Freedom of speech is a right preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and formally granted by the laws of most nations. In practice, however, some countries protect free speech, some deprioritize it, and some outright suppress it. Freedom of speech is protected in many of the freest countries in the world but is often restricted in totalitarian countries, communist countries, fascist countries, and dictatorships. Free speech can also be taken too far. An ongoing debate exists about where to draw the line between free expression and offensive, threatening, or harmful content. Particularly in the age of social media, when freedom of speech can be viewed as permission to spread damaging misinformation, bully others, and promote hate and intolerance, concerns have arisen over whether free speech can sometimes cause more harm than good.
Freedom of expression in 165 countries
The Global State of Democracy Indices is a database, maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which tracks 116 indicators related to democratic freedom in 165 countries. The GSDI includes eight indicators centered around free expression, including whether the government censors the media, whether the expression of one's personal culture is repressed, and whether both men and women feel comfortable expressing themselves in public. These metrics are then combined into a single value ranging from a low of 0.00 to a high of 1.00. The top 30 scores from 2020 make up the list below, and the full scoresheet appears in the table further down this page.
Top 30 Countries with the Most Freedom of Speech/Expression (GSDI 2020):
- 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
Free speech in the United States
Although the above study makes clear that freedom of expression in America has room to improve, Americans are among the world's most supportive citizens with regard to free speech—even if it criticizes the government or supports an unpopular opinion—freedom of the press, and the right to use the internet without government censorship. Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle in the U.S., protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “Congress shall make no law… abridging freedom of speech.”
In the U.S., freedom of speech includes the right to engage in symbolic speech, to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages, to advertise commercial products and professional services (with some restrictions), and the right to not speak (specifically, the right to not salute the flag) if one so desires. Americans are also more tolerant of offensive speech than people in most other nations.
This attitude is displayed in the results of two recent studies that addressed the value and level of support people place on free expression. The first was a 38-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2015, which asked participants in 38 countries a series of eight questions pertaining to freedom of expression, with answers ranging from 0 (least support) to 8 (most support). The United States posted the highest median score at 5.73. The second study was conducted in 2021 by judicial think-tank Justitia in collaboration with Columbia University in New York, U.S.A. and Aarhus University, Denmark. The United States placed third, with a score of 78 (out of a possible 100), closely following Norway (80) and Denmark (79).
Top 10 Countries Whose Citizens Value Free Speech the Most
|Rank||Justitia 2021 (0-100)||Pew 2015 (0-8)|
|1||Norway — 80||United States — 5.73|
|2||Denmark — 79||Poland — 5.66|
|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 2015 Pew survey revealed that countries in the Western Hemisphere are more tolerant than countries in the Eastern Hemisphere, with Mexico (5.42) and Canada (5.08) ranking fourth and sixth, respectively. Poland ranked as the second-most tolerant with a median score of 5.66, followed by Spain at 5.62. The lowest support for free expression among the countries surveyed came from Senegal (2.06), Jordan (2.53), and Pakistan (2.78).
A broader study of democracy as a whole conducted by Pew Research in 2019 included a question about whether respondents felt their right to free speech was secure and protected. Perhaps surprisingly, only 73% of respondents in the United States felt that free speech was properly protected. This placed the U.S. below several other countries, including Canada at 79%, the Netherlands at 84%, and Indonesia, which scored a survey-leading 86%.
The limits (and oppression) of free speech
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. Threats, racist speech, and other ethnically or religiously intolerant statements are also widely frowned upon and are legally actionable in some countries and situations.
While many nations acknowledge freedom of speech as a fundamental right and allow their people to freely voice their opinions and ideas, other nations are much more restrictive. Some of the most censored nations globally 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 open access to information as a threat to their rule. The media is either state-controlled or silenced, the internet is filtered, and highly censored and restrictive laws are used—often in tandem with fear and intimidation—to prevent the spread of ideas and information.