Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom of speech in the USA (compared to the UK)

Here are some of my thoughts and impressions on freedom of speech after living in the USA as a British expat for a time (note that although there are many similarities, for the sake of comparison, I am focusing on British and American differences).

Anyway, generally speaking, I would say that freedom of speech in the USA is seen pretty much as an absolute and the vast majority of Americans are proud of it.  They are also scared of losing it, however, and many, if not most, Americans across the political spectrum appear to believe that freedom of speech is under constant threat and has to be defended.  Were freedom of speech to be compromised in any way, according to many Americans, it would be the beginning of the end of it. 

In the UK, on the other hand, people are genuinely proud of freedom of speech, but is seen as a slightly more relative idea and generally dealt with in a more pragmatic way.  British people also tend to just take their freedom of speech much more for granted than Americans do and there is no particular fear of losing free speech generally, certainly not in the way that Americans appear to fear its loss.  The idea that it is a free country and you can say what you like is deeply ingrained in the British psyche, I would say, but there isn’t a great deal of passion in relation to it generally - in fact the British attitude seems virtually apathetic compared to the USA. 

Metaphorically, I would say that Americans see freedom of speech as a very solid thing, rather like a canon ball (or maybe a brittle canon ball that can be broken if roughly treated?), and the Brits see it as something a bit more squashy, like a bean bag.

Hate Speech

One of the main ways that freedom of speech is perceived in a subtly different way in Europe, compared to the US, is in regard to extremist politics.  Pretty much all European countries have laws against stirring up religious, or racial hatred and people generally  perceive this as a necessary evil, rather than an infringement on their rights.  The reasons why these laws are there are fairly obvious, when you consider that historically so many European states were ruled by Nazi or fascist governments during the 1930s and 40s.  This means that there is an underlying fear of rabble rousers stirring up hatred against minority groups and causing social disorder or worse, especially in countries like Germany and Austria.  Britain has relatively mild laws on hate speech, but they are still there.

America was founded by people who had either experienced religious or political persecution, or wanted to do their own thing.  So American ideas on free speech are more shaped by that experience.  World War II also had a different impact on the USA to Europe. 

It is also true to say that the American constitution was a positive assertion of freedom of speech as a value, whereas in Britain it was an historical development, with freedom of speech being achieved by default through restrictions being gradually removed.  (Until the European Human Rights Bill was sealed into UK law recently).

Koran burning

Out of all the places that I could have chosen to live in the USA, by chance I happened to end up in Gainesville, Florida, where the notorious Koran burner, Terry Jones and his church, the Dove World Outreach Center are based (the group are actually atypical of Gainesville, which is a liberal college town).  It was interesting to see how the Americans handled the situation.  The first time round the media blew up a storm and top American officials ended up almost pleaded with them not to burn the Koran, with top army officers and even the president trying to persuade them of their folly and the potential damage they could do to US troops and US’s image abroad.  In the end, Terry Jones called off his first book burning.  The second time around, however, the media and officials more or less ignored the book burning and it went ahead with limited publicity. 

In the UK, on the other hand, when there was a similar book burning by extremists and film of it put on Youtube, the people who did it were arrested and charged with inciting racial hatred.  The differences in approach are pretty stark.


Overall, although I respect absolute free speech, I am probably still more at home with the pragmatic and relativist Brit approach at the end of the day.  Some parts of US culture are difficult for me to understand.  For instance, why the US allows publicity seeking hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church to operate directly at funerals of young soldiers who have died.  I accept that they should be allowed to express their view of the bible, no matter how distorted and disturbing they may appear, but why it is so essential that they have to do it so close to a funeral is difficult for me to grasp.  I mean if they were forced to demonstrate two miles away, rather than under grieving relative’s noses, would it really signal the death of free speech?  (Having said that, Britain has had its own problems with radical Muslims launching demonstrations at funeral homecoming parades held for British troops who have died in conflicts abroad.)

I guess the strength of the American approach to free speech is that because it is very nearly absolute, there is little room for it to be chipped away or reinterpreted in a way that reduces it.  The weakness of it might be (at least from a Britisher’s viewpoint) that it can appear to pander to extremist elements and publicity seekers at times.


  1. Great comparison of the two, once again, it was nice to see your side of the spectrum. I agree with you that there are way too many people who take the whole 'free speech' further than it was ever intended. Esp down in the south where you are (hey, I can say that, I am from the south too, lol)

  2. @Texa - Whilst it's probably true that there are probably more free speech rights in the USA than anywhere else in the world, that doesn't mean that you will see me waving a "God hates fags!" banner or burning a koran anytime soon. hehe!

    One effect of the constitution that I like in the USA, is that you can say things about people that in the UK would be banned under the strict libel laws, which can get out of hand at times.

  3. An interesting comparison Paul. Observing the difference from this side of the Atlantic it is difficult to understand.

    I do believe that over here the balance is a little out of kilter - some combination of political correctness and the Human Rights Bill (well intentioned legislation often not well applied) leaves me often feeling uncomfortable.

    The thing which seems to be missing is common sense. The old adage of "What would the man on the top deck of the Clapham Omnibus think" is missing.

    Thus there can arise a feeling that the legislation is all favouring one side - a view which panders to the Daily Mail and the far right.

    We need to get the balance right.


  4. @David A - Yes, I would agree on that to some degree, David. Some of the rulings on terrorism and criminal law by the European Court can seem a little ridiculous.

    Having said that, the US is very much a popularist culture (rather than a nanny state), so it can feel sometimes like the equivalent of The Sun readers are very much in control here (bad analogy, but there is no really good one!).

    On another note, there is also a recent trend in Britain to go through the same sort of stuff as happens sometimes in the US, where people claim that their "human rights" are being interfered with over what would appear to be rather trivial matters to me, such as minor disputes over uniforms, or clothing rules at work or school.

  5. Can you say "super injunction"?

    I don't believe there should be instructions or limitations that come with freedom of speech. I don't believe it is one's words that incite violence but rather a lack of self-control on the part of the violent ones. Whatever happened to "sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me"? Just because someone calls me something doesn't mean I should stab them with a blunt instrument. The blame has been shifted in the UK, and now those speaking (albeit offensively) are effectively held just as responsible as those reacting angrily. It's madness - there has to be a personal responsibility to not react to provocation.

    Freedom of speech is definitely something to be protected and it should be absolute. When I was young, PC meant police constable....

  6. @Rob - When I was young, football hooligans regularly used to chant derogatory songs about the 'n*ggers' at matches. Nobody happened about it, until after the riots of the 1980s when many British cities were ripped apart. I personally am glad they made racist chanting at matches illegal. The football experience was improved for me. Many elements of the past just don't seem all that great to me.

    I guess with regard to freedom of speech, I was more of a purist in the past, but drifted into a more pragmatic mode. I tend to think there has to be a balance between maintaining a degree of social order and freedom of speech. Although, the reality is in the UK, you can talk about anything in everyday situations. The 'hate speech' laws are there to try and stop disorder spiralling out of control, which can and does happen in British cities.

    Of course, the US has a different history and cultural attitudes to the UK and you could write a series of books on comparisons, although in reality, there isn't that much difference to how things go in everyday life.

    Social taboos are what tend to dictate how people behave and what they feel able to say in public, rather than legalities, in both countries.

    I would also agree with Texa about the spirit of the constitution and what freedom of speech was meant to be about in the ideas of the founders.

  7. Fabrice Muamba: Racist Twitter user jailed for 56 days

    you may cite the worst examples of koran buring...but what about this? a prision sentance for a racist comment on the internet?

    I think id take the koran buring and the cults over that this madness anyday.

    1. The American koran burner was made bankrupt and homeless by the local authorities, without any opportunity to defend himself in a court of law, for publically expressing his beliefs.

  8. I think partly it's a matter of approach. Brits tend to have a faith in the law, which at least in theory, allows the accused to defend themselves. The US tends to use methods which would be seen as underhand in the UK. I live in the same town as the koran burner and he's been hounded out of town by the local authorities piling lots of extra charges on him (bills for policing, fire services etc.), basically because he publically expressed his beliefs. Generally, both the UK and US tend to end up in similar places, but they get there by different methods. I like the freedom of speech in the US, but I don't like the McCarthyist tactics that are often used to shut people up.