November 18, 2015

Where the world sees limits to free speech

In principle, most people around the world, and especially in the United States, support freedom of expression. But there is a fine line between general support for freedom of speech and support for specific forms of expression.

Views of Free Expression Worldwide

A new survey of people in 38 countries finds that for many provocative forms of speech, such as sexually explicit statements or calls for violent protests, most people draw a line between protected speech and speech that goes too far. And compared with the rest of the world, Americans generally are more accepting of free speech of any kind.

Criticizing government policies is the most accepted form of speech from our global poll, among the five statements that we tested. A median of eight-in-ten people across 38 countries say people should be able to express dissatisfaction with the government publicly. And about half or more in every country surveyed say this is acceptable. In many countries, people with a higher level of education are more likely than those with less education to support being able to criticize government policies in public.

But on most of the other statements tested, including speech that calls for violent protests, more oppose free public expression than those who support. Majorities in almost all the countries surveyed say the government should be able to prevent calls for violent protests. In the U.S., 44% support this kind of speech, while 51% support government restrictions on calls for protest. Support for this type of speech is highest in Poland (60%), possibly as a result of past protests against Soviet-controlled governments during the Cold War, although the Solidarity protests of the 1980s were largely peaceful.

Support for speech that is sexually explicit is also less accepted around the world. Majorities in most countries think the government should be able to restrict this type of speech. Only in Spain (70%), the U.S. (52%) and Poland (50%) do half or more support being able to say these things in public. However, young people are generally more accepting of this type of speech. In 16 of the 38 countries, 18- to 29-year-olds are more likely than those ages 50 and older to say that people should be able to make sexually explicit statements in public.

On other matters, such as saying things that are offensive to religion, there is also less support around the world. A median of only 35% across the nations surveyed say making public statements that might be offensive to their religion or beliefs is acceptable. And fewer than half in 24 countries say statements that are offensive to minority groups should be allowed publicly.

On the latter two questions, the U.S. stands out as one of the few pro-free speech exceptions, with two-thirds or more saying statements that are offensive to the respondent’s religion (77%) and minority groups (67%) are OK. But there is a racial divide, with nonwhite Americans (57%), including Hispanics, much less likely to agree that people should be able to say offensive things about minorities in public compared with white Americans (72%).

For more information on support for free speech around the world, see our detailed sortable table.

Topics: Democracy, International Governments and Institutions, Internet Activities

  1. Photo of Jacob Poushter

    is a senior researcher focusing on global attitudes at Pew Research Center.

  2. is a multimedia intern at Pew Research Center.


  1. Narendran Cp2 years ago

    But, but, what is free speech?

  2. Paul Dulaney2 years ago

    The bottom line is that Americans don’t believe you have the right to not be offended in the public square. It makes for occasional discomfort, but muzzling the populace is worse, in our view.

  3. Ruth Pepple2 years ago

    The word “offensive” indicates the intent to create unrest, as apposed to “personal opinion” which is a simple statement. If those statements were read in the context to ridicule or offend a group, the underlying anger and revenge are an interesting study.

    1. Archie Meijer2 years ago

      People have different opinions about what is and is not offensive. And since people read minds we can only guess whether someone intended to be offensive or not. Unfortunately the typical response of offended people is to assume offense was intentional, so vague policies against offending people lead to lots of well-intentioned people being punished.

      Furthermore banning offensive speech because of how other people might react to the speech is essentially condoning those reactions.

      It is better for stability in the long-term to promote the social norm that retaliation, whether physical or against property is NOT an acceptable response to people saying things you don’t like. Instead you may respond with your own words, you may decide that person is not worthy of being your friend, or you may ignore it. The government banning speech because people feel offended means the government has to pick and choose, and so it won’t be able to police everything that people feel is offensive.

      And the fact that governments are run by human beings with their own self-interests means the government will pick and choose in a biased manner. There are always winners and losers with censorship, and that creates antagonisms which leads to struggle which means new winners and losers. If you advocate for censorship now you may set a precedent that leads to you or views you agree with being censored later.

      1. Archie Meijer2 years ago

        I meant to say “since people can NOT read minds” obviously.

  4. RP2 years ago

    When I think about freedom of speech, I’m usually thinking about freedom from fear of legal repercussions for speech. But that’s really different from “acceptability”, or freedom from fear of social repercussions.

    Which of those was the subject of this poll? Sounds like the latter?

    1. Chris Pine2 years ago

      It seems implicit in Pew polls that public opinion “should” guide political leadership and national actions, which is obviously not realpolitik. We all rightly fear legal, or extralegal, repercussions for our speech, even in the short term (think being thumped by a cop, an agent of the law, for lipping back about being pulled over). But that DOES begin with what a populous finds “acceptable”, since these officiators of the law come from out of that population. Be careful what you wish for?