The global landscape for free speech is under threat, a new report shows, as open democracies implement restrictive measures in response to challenges. The report is a comprehensive analysis by the Future of Free Speech project, examining data from 22 open democracies spanning 2015 to 2022. The project is housed at Vanderbilt University.
And the erosion of freedom of speech in the wake of these restrictive measures is a threat to a fundamental element of democracy. The scale of restrictions documented in the report suggests that while democracies indeed face serious challenges, the cure has become worse than the disease. It contends that open societies must seek alternative and nonrestrictive measures if they are to protect democracy without sacrificing freedom of expression.
- Legislative Actions: A majority (78%) of reported developments point to increased speech restrictions, with legislative actions leading at 57%.
- Global Trends: Except for 2015, every year witnessed a majority of developments limiting expression, showing a noticeable upsurge in 2022.
- Reasons for Restrictions: National security, national cohesion and public safety were the most cited reasons for limiting expression.
- Protection Trends: Amid the concerning restrictive measures, the report did find some positive trends in legislation focused on protecting press freedom (22%), protest rights (12%) and democracy (12%).
- Hate Speech Laws: The report recommends that democracies reconsider the usefulness of hate speech laws, advocating for restrictions to align with international human rights standards and emphasizing nonrestrictive methods like education and counterspeech, suggesting that even hateful speech should only be restricted if it’s based on the intent to create imminent harm.
- Online Platform Obligations: It also urges a narrow definition of “illegal content” under intermediary obligations to prevent over-censorship, rejecting regulatory powers for political bodies like the European Commission.
- Privacy Laws: It encourages a limited application of privacy laws, like the Right to Be Forgotten, to preserve transparency and prevent unjustifiable removal of legitimate content.
- SLAPPs and Defamation Laws: It supports measures to prevent strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) and calls for the repeal of criminal defamation laws, emphasizing legal aid for public interest criticism.
- Disinformation Regulation: It advocates for clear and limited powers to regulate disinformation, to limit the chances of governments becoming arbiters of truth, emphasizing nonrestrictive means like media literacy and increasing trust in institutions.
- Emergency Measures: It urges governments to repeal emergency measures adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic and learn from past mistakes to avoid overly broad and draconian measures in future emergencies.
- Academic Freedom: It highlights the importance of preserving academic freedom and free inquiry at universities, cautioning against government intervention in speech on campus.
This report underscores the need for democracies to protect freedom of expression without sacrificing democratic values. As the global free speech recession intensifies, the report calls for a reevaluation of restrictive measures and a commitment to safeguarding essential democratic principles.
Read more about the report and its finding in Foreign Policy here.