Free speech – American-style vs European-style

I’ve been discussing with friends the issue of free speech as it is understood in Britain and the United States. I’m sure that I’ll have some similar conversations when I visit the USA shortly.

There is a cultural difference between the United States and Europe on freedom of speech which I believe has its roots in the different histories of the two parts of the world.

Most Americans believe that words and actions are quite distinct and that words should not be criminalised but actions can be. This is the essence of the First Amendment. In this scenario, it is usually argued that the answer to bad speech is good speech and in time the latter will prevail.

This approach comes from the history of the USA which was largely founded by religious immigrants fleeing Europe where they were persecuted for expressing and practicising their particular religious views. Modern America has no experience of religious wars or ethnic cleansing or extermination camps. The elimination of the American indian does not influence current American thinking. The incarceration of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War was not the result of bad actions or even of bad speech – but the paranoia of wartime.

n contrast, most Europeans believe that words and actions are related, that the first can lead to the second and that, in cases of particularly bad speech one should not wait until it actually results in bad actions. Therefore it is argued that certain forms of bad speech should be criminalised before it leads to bad actions. This is the essence of our incitement laws and, in some European countries, the criminalisation of Holocaust denial. In this scenario, the answer to the worst of bad speech is to prosecute it – although usually such prosecutions have to be brought by a public prosectors who makes a judgement as to whether on balance it is in the public interest and such prosecutions have to be heard by a jury who are expected to ensure that such trials are not used to constrain free speech.

This approach comes from the history of Europe which was torn apart by centuries of religious wars and most especially from the experience of the Second World War when the Holocaust could be seen as the end result of centuries of verbal and other denigration of Jewish people.

Ultimately all freedoms have to be qualified because one’s man’s freedom is frequently another man’s lack of freedom. So one man’s freedom to have slaves is at the expense of another man’s right to be free. One man’s right to bear arms may be at the cost of an innocent bystander being shot dead. A rich man’s freedom to donate any amount of money to political campaigns can be effectively to crush the right of a poor man to be heard politically. One man’s right to insult Jews, homosexuals, Muslims, or women undermines the rights of such groups to live free of fear and humiliation.

Perhaps because of the country of my upbringing and residence, I prefer the more nuanced European approach.


  • Nadine Wiseman

    Hello Roger

    I too was thinking about this recently, having read a thought-provoking ABC News essay, beginning with the Sudanese president describing the leadership of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, as “insects”, and looking at how degrading language can be used to dehumanise a specific group of people.

    “Incitement is a hallmark of genocide, and it may be a prerequisite for it”…

    The essay lead me to the magnificent, moving, “Heroic Imagination Project”

    “We seek to redefine heroism and make it more relevant for a 21st century world in which heroism is no longer the exclusive province of the physically brave, but it is also embodied by any individual with firmly held ethics and the courage to act on them.”

    I’ve been trying to implement the “Weekly Social Fitness Challenge”

    such as

    “Share your deepest values with someone.”

    “Have a conversation with someone you don’t usually talk to.”

    “Give a sincere compliment to at least one person every day this week.”

    It’s partly about preparing people so they don’t fall into the ‘bystander effect’ when trouble arises. And it’s hard, for an introvert like me. Which is really something to think about.

    All the best


  • Andy

    Hi, Nadine. That looks really interesting and worthwhile. Thanks for drawing our attention to it. I will pass this on!

    And, Roger, thanks for an enlightening analysis. Now I understand why I feel so uncomfortable about the US approach to free speech.

  • Michael Grace

    To the foreign observer, the uniquely American “freedom of speech or of the press” is one of the most misunderstood concepts about this country. One of the common errors is confusing “freedom of speech” with the right to be heard. No newspaper or tv station is obligated to reprint or broadcast whatever anyone has to say. Nor is any shopping center or city council required to provide you with a soapbox to sound off on any topic. Indeed, every content owner, broadcaster or newspaper owner has the legal right to refuse material which they deem objectionable.

    In summary, freedom of speech or press in the U.S. is protection against the common law doctrine of seditious libel so citizens can speak or publish freely against the government without fear of arrest by saying something that public officials don’t like. The trial of Peter Zenger in 1735 is an example of American opposition to arrests on the grounds of seditious libel and is considered a landmark event in the evolution of freedom of speech in this country.

    Freedom of speech, however, does not allow an individual to speak freely on all subjects. Government has the right to pass laws concerning abuses of the freedom of speech. Everything outside the discussion of public matters is open to restriction or licensing for the purpose of preventing crime, libel or slander, breach of the peace, enforcing public morality, etc.

    The extent to which the government (even the federal government) can pass laws abridging free speech is frequently a matter of public debate and court rulings. In 1968, for example, Congress passed a law which banned “contempt” directed at the American flag. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled against this law and state laws which banned “contempt” of the flag as violations against free speech.

    Freedom of speech or of the press is simply protection from the government treating any criticism of public policy as seditious libel where no justification, even the truth, could be used as a defense, which was common under British common law in the 18th century.

    Freedom of speech has less to do with religious persecution, as suggested, and more to do with fear that anything one might write or speak against the government could result in a charge of seditious libel. The first ten amendments were added to the constitution not so much as an expansion of individual rights, but more as specific constraints limiting the power of the federal government.

    Since Congress was not specifically vested with the power to regulate or license speech in the Constitution, some framers argued that the First Amendment (or even the other 9 amendments) was unnecessary protection against government abuse of power that was not granted in the first place. But the first ten amendments were added as reassurance to the states that Congress was powerless to abridge these rights to insure state passage of the Constitution.

    Freedom of speech serves primarily to remove the threat or fear that citizens’ criticism of the government or public officials would not result in criminal action against them.

  • Povel

    I frequently overlooked difference is that the American concept of freedom always revolves around what government can’t do. Free speech is not different. In America it is mainly about government not being allowed to hinder your speech.

    However in Europe free speech is seen as a right, and is thus protected by government. So e.g. in America an employer has quite wide authority with which he/she can limit or deny your free speech.

    While in Europe in general an employer has restrictions on how they can limit your speech, because it is a right protected by government. E.g. you can call your boss an asshole and they can’t fire you. However you can’t drag your company through the mud publicly.

    I think this is an important distinction because there is general idea in America they they have “more” free speech than Europeans, while to me it is the opposite. To me theoretical free speech is of no value, if all sorts of other people around you may limit this speech as they see fit.


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