Where do you draw the line between freedom of speech and offensive comments? It’s an ongoing debate.

In the wake of the advent of social media the debate has got even louder. People saying what they want gives the bosses of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites a big headache.

But saying what you like is more accepted in the United States than anywhere else, according to recent research. The Pew Research Center polled 38 countries around the world in 2015 and found that Americans are more tolerant of free speech than other nationalities. They are also the most supportive of freedom of the press and the right to use the internet without government censorship.

Seventy-one percent of Americans think that people should be able to say what they want without state or government censorship, 67% think that the media should report the news without this infringement, and 69% think people should be able to use the internet however they want without the authorities getting involved.

The figures are similar for America’s southern neighbours: 69% of Latin Americans think that they should be able to say what they want, 71% – more than the US – think that the press should be able to say what it wants, and 61% think that they should be able to use the internet as they see fit.

As the chart below shows, Europe was the third most likely region to support freedom of speech, followed by Asia Pacific, Africa and the Middle East the least likely.

Image: Pew Research Center

Broadly speaking, the research concluded that those living in the western hemisphere were more tolerant of free speech than those living in the eastern hemisphere.

Most and least tolerant countries

The researchers compiled a list of the 38 countries based on their answers to five questions about freedom of speech and freedom of the press, with answers ranging from 0 for where they are least supportive of freedom of expression and 8 for where they are most supportive. They then calculated a median score for each country.

The US registered the highest score, at 5.73. Poland was the second most tolerant country, registering a median score of 5.66. Spain and the United Kingdom were the only other European countries to feature in the 10 most tolerant, at 5.62 and 4.78 respectively.

Image: Pew Research Center

Other particularly tolerant countries include Mexico (5.40), Venezuela (5.17), Canada (5.08), Australia (4.94) and South Africa (4.80).

The mean average score was 4.07.

The country that was least supportive of free expression was Senegal, with a median score of 2.06. Burkina Faso, with 2.94, was the only other African country to appear in the bottom 10.

Other countries with a low tolerance of freedom of expression were Jordan (2.53), Pakistan (2.78), Ukraine (2.85), Vietnam (2.96), Lebanon (3.16) and Japan (3.27).

It’s worth remembering that freedom of speech is enshrined in the constitution of the United States – the first amendment offers protection of public speech. The report draws the conclusion that “Americans don’t necessarily like offensive speech more than others, but they are much less inclined to outlaw it.”