Why is Freedom of Speech So Unique in the United States? (Excerpt)

Bill of Rights. CREDIT: National Archives


What makes freedom of speech in the United States so different from other democratic countries, particularly those in Western Europe? In a June 1, 2017 talk on his new book,The Soul of the First Amendment, Floyd Abrams suggests that we have to look no further than the First Amendment of the Constitution and the language it uses to restrict the government.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
---First Amendment [bold added]

Abrams argues that the wording of this amendment gives more power to the people and less to the government, making it hard to censor non-violent speech. While in Western Europe, hate speech is criminalized or banned, and the "right to be forgotten" on the Internet is allowed, the U.S. does not allow for these types of restrictive laws. To learn more, a modified excerpt of the talk is available for teachers and students on the top right sidebar. For the full transcript, click here.

Suggested application activities:

1. Compare the text of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution with that of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights used by European Union countries. Based upon the language in both laws, why is hate speech allowed in the U.S. but not in the EU? What are the keywords in both texts? Which text do you think is better for its citizens?

2. Discussion question: Do you think the "right to be forgotten" is a practical and ethical concept? Should it be applied to adults and children? Just children? Or is the concept too similar to rewriting history?

These activities works well in an A.P. U.S. Government class.