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People Want Free Speech—for Themselves

In a new global survey, respondents overwhelmingly supported freedom of expression—for anyone they agree with.

By , the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights.
Students hold a silent protest against the violence that marred yesterday's referendum vote outside the University on Oct. 2, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.
Students hold a silent protest against the violence that marred yesterday's referendum vote outside the University on Oct. 2, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Who cares about free speech? Almost everyone, according to a new global survey commissioned by Justitia (of which I am the director). In fact, across populations in 33 countries, a whopping 94 percent think it’s important for people to be able to say what they want without censorship. Likewise, the rights of the media to report as they see fit and of people to use the Internet without censorship are supported by 93 percent and 93 percent, respectively.

But if an overwhelming majority of respondents are enthusiastic supporters of free speech, why has this freedom been in global decline for more than a decade?

To answer this seeming paradox, we need to ask not merely whether but how sincerely people support free speech. Once people are forced to measure their support in the abstract for free speech against trade-offs and (supposedly) competing values, the near-universal support quickly plummets. It seems many people cherish the right to speak freely for themselves but attach less value to the opinions of others that might clash with their own values and priorities.

Across all countries, only 43 percent support the legal protection of statements offensive to minorities, while 39 percent are in favor of prohibiting statements offensive to their own religion and beliefs. Tolerance for statements supportive of same sex-relationships varies from near universal support in Denmark and Sweden (91 percent), to less than a third in Pakistan (27 percent). Seventy-two percent of Danes and Americans are willing to tolerate insults to their national flags, compared to only 16 percent and 18 percent in Turkey and Kenya, respectively.

According to Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, the First Amendment has made the United States “the most speech protective of any nation on Earth, now or throughout history.” Worryingly, American support for such “free speech exceptionalism” may be on the wane. True, 88 percent of Americans think free speech should include the right to criticize the government, the very “bedrock principle” of the First Amendment. But this reflects a small but significant drop compared to a 2015 PEW survey, which may indicate increasing American unease about free speech following the incendiary presidency of Donald Trump and its violent conclusion with the attack on the Capitol. This interpretation is supported by the fact that Biden voters are generally less supportive of free speech than Trump voters, a somewhat surprising result given Trump’s repeated attacks against the media as “enemies of the people.”

The future of free speech in America may lead to even more of a pivot away from free speech exceptionalism. Young people (18-34 years old) are less supportive of free speech than older generations, except when it comes to insulting the Stars and Stripes. This includes a significantly lower tolerance (shared by women and Biden voters) for statements that are offensive to minority groups. This suggests that many younger Americans view free speech and equality as values that are (sometimes) conflicting, rather than mutually reinforcing. This is a departure from the idea that “[t]he right of speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed,” as eloquently expressed by the great 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

For much of human history, permissible speech has been severely restricted in the name of religious belief. At its most explosive, religious intolerance may lead to deadly violence as witnessed by jihadist attacks against cartoonists in Denmark and France, anti-Muslim violence by Hindu extremists in India, and attacks on LGBT-people by extremist Orthodox Christians in Russia. When asked whether the government should be able to restrict offensive statements against “my own religion or beliefs,” 73 percent say yes in Turkey and 75 percent in Pakistan, but so do 37 percent in the United Kingdom and France and 47 percent in Germany.

But there are also optimistic results in the survey for those who cherish the right to speak freely. Since free speech is a sensitive topic, people tend to answer questions in a manner viewed favorably by others such as the government or peers. To tease out such “social-desirability bias” and reveal true preferences, we implemented a so-called list experiment. When comparing the responses to our list experiment with the responses to our direct questions about the acceptance of offensive statements on religion, it seems that many people are more tolerant of criticism of their religion in private than they are ready to admit in public. In Russia, the difference is a staggering +36. A similar tendency is found in a number of Muslim-majority countries that punish religious offense: Turkey (+22), Lebanon (+17), Tunisia (+14), Egypt (+12), and Indonesia (+15).

To assess and rank the overall support for free speech in the 33 countries surveyed, we created the Justitia Free Speech Index, and some unlikely champions emerge, including Hungary and Venezuela which were 5th and 7th respectively. It may be that Hungarians and Venezuelans, affected by government capture of traditional media and the marginalization of opposition voices, recognize the dangers of taking free speech for granted. This development provides hope that free speech can survive the current wave of authoritarianism. Likewise, despite tight policing of the public sphere, there is substantial popular support for the right to criticize the government in low-ranking countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Russia, and the Philippines.

In the industrial age of traditional media, the state was the ultimate arbiter of speech whose limits it defined and enforced. However, in the digital age of social media private platforms make more daily decisions about speech limits than most governments will ever face. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are not bound by the First Amendment or international human rights law, yet their content moderation has huge ramifications for the global spread of ideas and information. This raises the difficult question of who gets to decide and enforce the limits of free speech on social media. Should it be states, and if so, should each state get to wall off its corner of the Internet with its own specific laws? Or should private platforms, whose policies lack direct democratic legitimacy, and transparency and operate outside the constraints of fundamental rights, get to decide?

This conflict is currently playing out in India where the government is putting extreme pressure on Twitter to remove “misinformation,” which includes criticism of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But European democracies such as Germany and Austria have also adopted laws forcing social media companies to remove “illegal content.” As our survey vividly demonstrates it is impossible for large centralized platforms to comply with the clashing limits of tolerance of people across the world. Inevitably some will insist that the platforms remove too little, while others will protest that they remove too much.

Majorities in all surveyed countries agree that some regulation of social media is preferable to none. But interestingly, majorities in two thirds of the countries surveyed—including Venezuela, Hungary, the United States, Nigeria, Japan, and Sweden—prefer platforms to be solely responsible for regulating themselves as opposed to government regulation alone. Despite the amplification of hate speech and disinformation on social media, it seems that many value the ability to impart and access information without government censorship.

What to make of all this data? There is a clear, positive association between public support for free speech and the actual enjoyment of this right. Accordingly, the more people support the difficult and counterintuitive principle of free speech, the greater the likelihood that they actually get to exercise it without censorship or repression. This requires the development of a robust and tolerant culture of free speech. Alas, a global consensus on free speech maximalism is unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law and author of the forthcoming book Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media.