I. Introduction

samoa flag

Flag of Samoa

Samoa is small county in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, composed of a total of six islands. Samoa’s capital city Apia is the country’s largest city, residing in the second largest Samoan island, Upolu. Reporters Without Borders, an international not-for-profit organization which seeks to educate and promote press freedom, rates Samoa a score of No. #21 on the Freedom Index. This score outranks the prominent first-world country Canada, which is listed just below Samoa at #22. Samoa’s semi-high Freedom Index score is also above Spain, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Similarly, the International Freedom Expression Exchange (IFEX) cites Freedom House’s global media report with grading Samoa a similar press freedom score of 29. Though these scores are positive at first glance, Samoan politicians have put the country and its press future in doubt with recent changes to the constitution.

II. Historical Background
An oceanic country rich in Asian influence, Samoan culture is filled with island spirit and honoring tradition. The time-honored customs date back to around 3,000 A.D., the oldest date known to scientists of Samoa’s true age. The earliest inhabitants migrated to Samoa relatively shortly after its emergence, about 500 years post-conception. Though there are only theories on where the earliest Samoans came from, the common consensus is that Aboriginal Australians migrated east during a geologic expansion¹. A culture built on oral narratives², historians believe the earliest Samoans were united with the rest of Oceania. Samoa grew and thrived, coming into its own as a country worthy of a spot on the map. By the mid-1700s, Samoa began to attract attention from the west. Continuing their traditions of speaking history to one another and with no written language, the Samoan people had no records until the first missionaries began to keep track around 1830. Some missionaries and explorers stopped upon the shores, but it wasn’t until the 1900s when Germany governed Samoa for a bit over a decade, that the country experienced an influx of colonization. From 1920 to 1962, New Zealand ruled over Samoa as part of the Western Samoa Trust Territory. Samoa then gained independence as its own country with its own people, and officially became known as Western Samoa.
American Samoa is a neighboring island group and a United States Unincorporated Territory. Western Samoa changed its name to Samoa in 1997, despite many American Samoan’s disagreement. Samoa did this to establish itself as its own country and identity separate from American Samoa, though American Samoa thought this would damage American Samoa’s identity as its own nation. Though this name change caused a brief turbulence in relation to the neighboring country, American Samoa has been optimistic and confidently looking toward the future of the fresh country for close to a century.

III. Free Speech
A relatively young country, Samoa enacted its constitution in 1960. The Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa is a lengthy and thorough document. Under Part II: Fundamental Rights, Category No. 13 declares all Samoan citizens have the right to freedom of speech and expression; to assemble peaceably and without arms; to form associations and unions; and to move freely throughout Samoa and to reside in any part thereof. All of these liberties are given in subclause 1, though subclause 2 notes that these liberties are restricted in times of a threat to national security. The wording of Constitution Part XII: Transitional declares Samoa, a country based on Christian values, references the trinity and declares that the country belongs to God alone.
In 2009, Samoa officially banned the distribution of Milk, a biographical film on the activist Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk was an openly gay politician³, the first publicly gay person elected into an office position in the state of California. Samoan officials gave no reason for this ban. According to the New Zealand Herald, Samoa banned the film The Da Vinci Code, with reasoning given by Catholic Archbishop Alapati Mataeliga. Archbishop Mataeliga worried that the film would affect young people without a strong faith, as he believed the narrative of The Da Vinci Code to be blasphemous against the Bible⁴.

IV. Free Press
Passed in 1960, the Constitution of the Independent State of Samoa gave leeway for law enforcement to imprison journalists who refuse to reveal confidential sources, though this subclause has not yet been put to use. In December 2017, the Samoan Parliament re-instated criminal libel laws. According to The Samoa Observer, an online source for Samoan politics and social news, this passed through three readings in less than an hour, and objectively is based on poor reasonings. Through reasonable interpretation of these facts, it is likely that the government is trying to cover its bases and save itself from any potential criticism. Similar laws were removed in 2013, though they were later reinstated in late 2017. No information can be found on why the laws were originally removed, but Fa’aolesa Katopau Ainuu, the Minister of Justice and Courts Administration, claims that citizens asked for the criminal libel laws to be put back in place.

V. Critical Comparison
Samoa and the United States of America are both countries that possess Christian roots. While each country has its own convictions, the Samoan constitution holds Samoa as a Christian nation, whereas the United States’ constitution makes no mention of God. Along a similar line, Samoa banned the American-produced movie The Da Vinci Code for religious reasons.
Morse v. Frederick is a United States Supreme Court Case, decided in 2007. This case relates to speech outside a school that reasonably promotes illicit drug use. A high school student held a large banner reading “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” outside the school, and the Supreme Court ruled that the principal was legally protected in suspending him. Though this case dealt predominantly with school speech and the student’s free speech rights, under Samoan law the case could have gone much differently. Not only could the student’s punishment from the school be upheld, but the student could also face other legal charges on account of the reference to the revered Christian savior, Jesus. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1964, was the landmark case that established actual malice standards. Actual malice standards must be met and public figures must be able to prove actual malice to win libel lawsuits, and these safeguards are practically necessary when coming into contact with libel cases. That being said, public figures can continue to bring libel lawsuits before the court, but they are not likely to win due to the measures resulting from New York Times v. Sullivan. Actual malice standards require that the plaintiff be able to prove that the defendant knew the published work was false before publishing, and published regardless of verity. With actual malice standards in place, the public and journalists in particular are protected from libel lawsuits on the part of politicians and public figures who could be tempted to use libel lawsuits as a means of censorship. When the Samoan Parliament re-instated criminal libel without a form of actual malice standards, the government effectively removed press protections. Similar United States libel laws are seen in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 486, though the court ruled that public figures cannot claim liability from facetious published work that level-headed people will not take seriously. It is important to note that though Hustler Magazine v. Falwell is about emotional distress and the intentional infliction of it, the case involves libel nonetheless. These are resident protections that Samoan citizens do not have; Samoan Parliament passed the criminal libel reinstatement through three readings in less than an hour, likely with the sole aim of protecting politicians and without safeguards to defend Samoans’ free speech and freedom of press.

VI. Conclusion
Despite Samoa’s potentially misused laws, the fact still remains that Samoa has consistently scored higher than the United States on various freedom indexes. Though the United States has a more thorough set of laws in place to protect citizens First Amendment rights, the United States also has a long history of people and organizations fighting for these rights in court, something Samoa has not yet experienced. While this is likely due in part to the size and population of each country, Samoa being a significantly smaller nation with a homogeneous population⁵ whereas America is a huge country and a melting pot full of cultures and backgrounds, Samoa’s testing advantage can also be due to the nation’s age. A young country whose constitution was born in 1960, it is yet to be seen if the Independent State of Samoa will stand the test of time.



¹ Gray, Captain J.A.C., MC, USN. Amerika Samoa. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1960. 13. Print.

²Gray, Captain J.A.C., MC, USN. Amerika Samoa. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1960. 14. Print.

³An Archive Of Hope: Harvey Milk’s Speeches And Writings. Berkerley: University of California Press, 2013. Print.

⁴Kilpatrick, William. Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2012. 164-68. Print.

⁵Lee, Jonathan H. X et al. Asian American Religious Cultures. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015, p. 749. Print.


This essay was last updated on April 30, 2018.

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