Hi, friends. Last week, Poland made headlines when its president said he would sign a bill prosecuting people who specifically implicate Poland in the Holocaust; for instance, the phrase “Polish death camps” would be illegal. The justification is that Polish citizens were victims rather than oppressors in WWII with the Nazis occupying their land against their will. As an American, the idea that *saying something* would be illegal sounds authoritarian. I got curious and decided to explore the speech laws in other countries.
Speech in the USA
The Bill of Rights refers to the first ten amendments to the US Constitution (supreme law of the nation ratified in 1788). As a consequence to the major concerns of state representatives who still didn’t trust the government after the constitution was approved, amendments that curtailed federal authority were introduced in congress in 1789. Long story short, the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. Other amendments have been added, like the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, but the Bill of Rights only includes the original ten.
The first amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Due to various court cases throughout the 1900’s and 2000’s, speech freedom has expanded as issues like political speech, anonymous speech, pornography, etc. were addressed. There are exceptions to the law, such as libel and copyright infringement, but they’re minimal.
Speech in Other Countries
I’m providing information from countries where I have the most readers (recently). Forgive me if your country is excluded! Let me know about the speech laws in your country if yours isn’t here, and feel free to clarify your speech laws if your country is listed.
UK citizens had freedom of speech based on common law, aka precedent. In 1999, the European Convention was called to consolidate the rights of European Union citizens. Freedom of speech, a right approved at the European Convention, was added to UK law. Exceptions to freedom of speech in the UK are greater than in the USA, ranging from reasonable (treason) to extreme (“insulting or offensive words”).
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is Canada’s version of the Bill of Rights. Section 2 lists fundamental freedoms. All Canadians have “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.” Section 1 gives the federal government authority to change any laws in section 2. The Criminal Code (defines criminal offenses and procedures in Canada) makes “hate propaganda” illegal.
The Indian Constitution, Article 19, reads, “All citizens shall have the right —to freedom of speech and expression; to assemble peaceably and without arms; to form associations or unions; to move freely throughout the territory of India; to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India; and to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. These rights are limited so as not to affect: the integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, or defamation or incitement to an offence.” The Indian Penal Code of 1860 makes expressions against the government illegal.
After the authoritarian regime (Estado Novo) that ruled Portugal from 1933-1974 was overthrown, a Constituent Assembly was elected to amend the constitution. Article 37 prohibits censorship of information and opinion. Before they gained independence from Spain in 1910, the country’s media was intensely censored, primarily in the area of religion since Spain was Catholic.
Freedom of speech is based on common law and not officially enshrined. In an important 1992 court case, the High Court of Australia determined that freedom of speech was implied in their constitution; however, they specify “political communication” when referring to freedom of speech, creating ambiguity.
“While even racially and religiously offensive material is protected in the United States, hate speech or speech that incites racial hatred is illegal in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Belgium and other European countries.” (NPR)
While the founders of the United States believed rights like freedom of speech are inalienable, most countries restrict that right to some degree. White supremacists are prosecuted in many places, but they are one of many protected classes here. The age old question is, “Where do my rights end, and where do the other person’s begin?” Many nations have drawn that boundary at offense (not physical but figurative); if person A’s statement offends person B, person B’s rights have been infringed. Some would argue that’s a gross oversimplification of hate speech. As for me…I may find you offensive, but I want you to have the right to offend me.