Talking Points

The silver lining of America's free speech worries

Free speech has been in the headlines, at least if you follow dispatches from the culture war. From conservatives denouncing cancel culture to progressives warning of educational censorship, nearly everyone is convinced their liberty to read, say, and publicize what they think is endangered.

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 still are by international standards. 

Many liberal democracies offer some constitutional protections, but the U.S. is an outlier in courts' application of those protections to include ostensible hate speech, unintentionally defamatory statements about public figures, and the expression of deeply offensive views such as Holocaust denial. Beyond the law, Americans also stand out for our overwhelming belief that controversial and provocative speech should be allowed. If Americans are worried about present conditions for free speech, it's partly because we're unusually certain free speech is important.    

Two events this week highlight the distinctiveness of American speech culture. One took place in Germany, where the federal Ministry of the Interior announced it is illegal to publicly support the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The prohibition isn't 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's harder to explain the decision by prosecutors in Finland to charge a member of parliament and a bishop of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church with hate speech. Their offenses: The lawmaker wrote a pamphlet defending "biblical marriage" that was published by the bishop's church.

To be fair, the charges were dropped on Wednesday, partly because the court ruled the intention was to express a religious belief rather than to "disparage homosexuals." But the fact that such charges could even be brought — and that judges are entitled to impose criminal penalties based on their interpretation of a writer's motives — should remind us how special and valuable our distinctive approach to speech really is.

Educational and employment settings pose special challenges, yes. So do issues of obscenity, a category that courts have narrowed but not recognized as constitutionally-protected speech. But when it comes to core civic and religious activities, the First Amendment protects doctrinaires and dissenters, creators and cranks, fanatics and skeptics alike.

Thank God for that.