Free speech has been in the headlines, at least if you follow the culture war dispatches. From conservatives denouncing cancel culture to progressives warning of educational censorshipalmost everyone is convinced of their freedom to read, say and make known what they think is in danger.
Some of these threats are very real, while others seem dubious. But it’s worth stepping back from specific cases to consider how unusually strong American commitments to speech and expression are still by international standards.
Many liberal democracies offer some constitutional protections, but the United States is an exception in having these protections applied by the courts to include overt hate speech, unintentionally defamatory statements about public figures, and expression deeply offensive views such as Holocaust denial. Beyond the law, Americans are also distinguished by our overwhelming belief that controversial and provocative speeches should be allowed. If Americans are worry on the current conditions of freedom of expression, it is partly because we are exceptionally certain that freedom of expression is important.
Two events this week highlight the distinctiveness of American speaking culture. One took place in Germany, where the Federal Ministry of the Interior announcement it is illegal to publicly support the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The ban is not limited to posters, billboards or other forms of public expression. It even extends to displays of the letter Z, which has become a symbol of support for Russia’s war.
Germany’s restrictive approach – which is consistent with its policy on Nazi symbols and paraphernalia – may seem justified by its particular history. It is more difficult to explain the decision of Finnish prosecutors to accuse a deputy and a bishop of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of hate speech. Their offenses: The legislator wrote a pamphlet defending the “biblical marriage” which was published by the Episcopal Church.
To be fair, the charges were fall on Wednesday, in part because the court ruled the intention was to express a religious belief rather than to “disparage homosexuals.” But the fact that such charges can even be brought – and that judges have the right to impose criminal sanctions based on their interpretation of a writer’s motives – should remind us how much our distinctive approach to speech is. really special and precious.
Educational and employment contexts pose particular challenges, yes. The same goes for issues of obscenity, a Category which the courts have restricted but not recognized as constitutionally protected speech. But when it comes to essential civic and religious activities, the First Amendment protects doctrinaires and dissenters, creators and eccentrics, fanatics and skeptics.
Thank God for that.