Free speech

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Even in liberal democracies, there are differing views of free speech. Nations with the greatest tradition still restrict things that are an immediate danger, as Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote in the unanimous opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1919 case, Schenck v. United States,

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.[1]

Freedom of thought

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) does freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to change religions and to practice one's religion. This is not universally accepted, Based on the right of freedom of opinion, Article 19 state a right to transfer "information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Clear and present danger

UDHR Article 20 states a right of peaceful assembly and association. Violence, or threats of violence, are rarely if ever protected speech. Schenck v. United States further said,

Words which, ordinarily and in many places, would be within the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment may become subject to prohibition when of such a nature and used in such circumstances a to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils which Congress has a right to prevent. The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.

The 1942 Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire decision[2] affirmed the decision of the New Hampshire on a state law blocking what it called "fighting words" in a face-to-face situation:

"any offensive, derisive or annoying word to any other person who is lawfully in any street or other public place," or "call him by any offensive or derisive name," was construed by the Supreme Court of the State, in this case and before this case arose, as limited to the use in a public place of words directly tending to cause a breach of the peace by provoking the person addressed to acts of violence.

The Court later refined its definition, in Bradenburg v. Ohio (1969):

These later decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.[3]

Hate speech

For more information, see: Hate speech.

Canada, unquestionably a liberal democracy, recognized a difference between protected and hate speech in the 1990 Keegstra case. Chief Justice Robert Dickson wrote,

"crucial to the disposition of this appeal: the relationship between Canadian and American approaches to the constitutional protection of free expression, most notably in the realm of hate propaganda...There is much to be learned from First Amendment jurisprudence." But he concluded that "the international commitment to eradicate hate propaganda and, most importantly, the special role given equality and multiculturalism in the Canadian Constitution necessitate a departure from the view, reasonably prevalent in America at present, that the suppression of hate propaganda is incompatible with the guarantee of free expression."[4]

Defamation of religion

Various international organizations struggle with the issue of defamation of religion. Nations with a state religion, especially Islam, bar criticism of that religion. The Coalition to Defend Free Speech, an affiliate of very disparate U.S. groups, is opposed to a charge of "defamation of religions", introduced to the UN Human Rights Council by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1999.[5] The charge was introduced by Pakistan, entitled "Defamation of Islam".[6]

Western democracies do tend to restrict on action, such as job and housing discrimination, based on religion. Nevertheless, there are active controversies, such as proposed bans, in France, against wearing of religious garments.

Political speech


  1. Schenck v. United States, 249 US 47 (1919)
  2. Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)
  3. Bradenburg v. Ohio, 395 US 444 (1969)
  4. "Hate speech or free speech? What much of West bans is protected in U.S.", New York Times, 11 June 2008
  5. Coalition to Defend Free Speech
  6. Christopher Hitchens (March 2, 2009), "Don't Say a Word: A U.N. resolution seeks to criminalize opinions that differ with the Islamic faith.", Slate