By Alexandria Reid

The Official Flag of Denmark

The Official Flag of Denmark

Considered one of the freest countries in the world, Denmark is ranked third out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for 2015. In comparison, the United States, self-proclaimed the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” is ranked 49th. Denmark’s rank has jumped four spots from 2014’s rankings, while the United States dropped down two spots. Although the countries have very similar values when it comes to freedom of speech and the press, there are several differences that make Denmark considered less restricting of these freedoms.


Now a fraction of the size of the once vast kingdom, Denmark has a lineage that dates back to the Viking ages of 800 AD. Denmark’s borders once encompassed present day England, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, which was the result of a series of Viking conquests (Danish History and Culture). Until the mid-sixteenth century, Denmark was considered an enemy to most European nations because of its Viking culture, which was known for pillaging and destruction. The introduction of Christianity in Denmark changed relations between these countries, and it is now a small country that goes more or less unnoticed by other European nations. Denmark is composed mostly of islands, and has a mere population of 5.5 million (Jesperson). A small, quaint country, its citizens do not only have the luxury of being ranked in the top three countries for free speech, but it is also considered the happiest country in the world (Melnick). American Judge Learned Hand once said that, “the aim of law is the maximum gratification of the nervous system of man.” Surely, a country that is ranked third in terms of free expression and first in terms of happiness proves Learned Hand’s point.


The individual’s right to free speech is protected in Denmark’s constitution under Section 77. This states that any person shall be entitled to publish his thoughts in printing, in writing, and in speech, provided that he may be held answerable in a court of justice. Censorship and other preventative measures shall never again be introduced (Jakobsen). Although this may sound all-inclusive, there are some limitations on the right to free speech. These limitations include libel, blasphemous and racist speech otherwise known as hate speech under article 266 of the Danish Penal Code. This code states that any form of expression by which a group of people are threatened, insulted or degraded on account of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religion, or sexual inclination is strictly prohibited (Townsend). The purpose of this statute is not to force citizens to relinquish their rights of free speech, rather to prevent a group of people from being oppressed for their own form of expression.

Other than this one principle, Denmark has virtually no limitations on speech. In fact, it is difficult to uncover any instances that an individual has felt they were wrongfully punished for something that they said. More often than not, the country receives criticism by some for being too liberal with what they allow. In 1967, Denmark was the first country to legalize pornography and allow it to be distributed without government regulation. The only exception was that it could not be sold or viewed by children under the age of 15 and could not contain children in the material (Langsted). Legalizing pornography showed Denmark’s values on freedom of expression—even sexual expression—that was unmatched by other nations during the time period.

Another progressive value Denmark has in the service of freedom of expression is their lack of limitations on flag burning. In fact, Denmark only limits its citizens from burning or defacing the flags of other nations because of the possibility of inciting violence, and it also falls under hate speech by threatening a group of people based on their nation of origin (Langsted). There have been several instances where the Danish flag has been burned, sometimes in protest and sometimes in celebration, but the Danes do not have an issue with critical discussion pertaining to their own country, and therefore do not have any limitations against this practice.

Currently, the individual’s right for information is under attack. In June 2013, Danish Parliament passed an Access to Information law. This law makes it difficult for political documents to be shared between ministers and advisers (Denmark). This has a potential to make it difficult to inform the public of the details of new laws before they are passed because it makes the information harder to obtain. This law is still in debate, and many citizens have expressed their outrage.

The Danish Press Council regulates print, online and broadcast media in Denmark. The Danish Supreme Court and several journalist associations appoint the members of this council. Together, they work to choose eight people that will uphold the rights of the press without violating the constitutional restrictions on speech (Denmark).

In response to a social issue of artists refusing to illustrate a book about the prophet Muhammed in fear of terroristic backlash, one of the largest newspapers in the country, Jyllands-Posten, asked cartoonists to depict the Muslim prophet as they envisioned him. Twelve artists responded and the cartoons were published on Sept. 30, 2005. The newspaper held that the cartoons were not an attack on Muslims, but a criticism against self-censorship that they believed was being committed by other artists. The cartoons were taken to trial, and the Danish court decided that although the cartoons offended many Muslims, it cannot be proven that their intent was to be insulting, therefore the case was dismissed (Fouche).

It is important to note that the only reasons the Jyllands-Posten or the cartoonists were not imprisoned for the cartoons is because it was not considered hate speech. The Danish Press Council takes a firm stance against this form of speech. Only ten years prior to the cartoon incident, there was the case of Jersild v. Denmark. In this case, Jersild was a journalist who interviewed a group of extreme racists who stated comments that were considered hateful towards other races. In their interview, they compared those of African descent to monkeys, and held that all races that were not explicitly ‘white’ were not human at all. Jersild was imprisoned after the interview aired, and Denmark held that there is a distinct interest in journalism keeping private opinion out of the press (Belavusau). This decision set a standard for journalists, and many considered it a loss for free press throughout the nation.

Although the press is forbidden from allowing hate speech to be published, the value of the press in society is not forgotten. Three journalists from the Berlingske Tidende newspaper were arrested in 2006 after publishing classified reports that detailed mass destruction and weaponry in Iraq. The purpose of this leak was to expose the Danish government and their reasons for involvement in Iraq to the public. The journalists were arrested for harming state security and publishing illegally obtained material, but were eventually acquitted (Three). This case sparked much controversy in Denmark, and the result set a precedent for the rights of journalists in the country. Their acquittal was considered a win for the right to a free press.

Currently, the backlash from Jyllands-Posten’s scandal with depictions of Muhammed is still alive ten years later. On February 14, 2015, a terrorist attack in Copenhagen, the capitol of Denmark, was unleashed at a freedom of expression forum that was attended by a cartoonist that depicted Muhammed in the form of a dog. This attack has forced the nation into a discussion over the rights of the press to post materials that spark controversy because they have led to violence. The Prime Minister of Denmark, Helle Throning-Schmidt, is adamant that the attacks should not change the country’s values in regards to free speech and the press (Abend).

Section 77 of the Danish constitution which prohibits restrictions on free speech sounds incredibly similar to that of the United States, which states that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. Also similar to Danish law is the limitations on free speech that include libel and slander.

Although these similarities exist, the United States does not limit an individual’s right to racist or hateful speech. In 2010, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funeral of a soldier who died in non-combat in Iraq. During this picketing, they held up signs that used profane language to blame the war on God’s wrath for America’s growing tolerance for homosexuality. Although this sort of speech would be considered hate speech in Denmark for degrading and insulting a group based on their sexual inclination, the United States Supreme Court ruled differently. The court held that Westboro had the right to picket this event and Chief Justice John Roberts stated in the opinion that, “as a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate,” (Snyder). This decision to protect all speech—even speech that is considered hateful and hurtful toward many—is a fundamental value that the United States was built on and protects. This idea may seem progressive compared to Denmark’s statute to stifle free speech, but there are several other instances where Denmark accepts freedom of expression that the United States has not yet permitted.

Unlike Denmark’s lack of infringement on individual’s rights, the United States has committed several faux pas in the past decades. One of these mistakes is the case of Texas v. Johnson, where Johnson was arrested for burning the United States flag in protest in 1989. After taking the case to the Supreme Court, they overturned this law and ruled that flag burning is a form of symbolic speech and is protected under the first amendment. Although the United States did not initially view this as symbolic speech like Denmark, they eventually came to the same conclusion.

When it comes to national transparency and freedom of the press, the United States still falls a long way behind Denmark. Similar to the case of Berlingske Tidende, the United States had a controversy where classified NSA documents were leaked to the Guardian by a man named Edward Snowden. These documents revealed hidden surveillance by the National Security Agency that upset Americans and Countries around the globe. The case has yet to go to trial because Snowden is considered a threat to national security and has been hiding out since the release of these documents. The fear of his punishment from the U.S. government is a key difference between the U.S. and Denmark

Overall, Denmark and the United States have similar ideals when it comes to freedom of speech and press. Although there are instances that have caused them to differ—the limitations on hate speech and the roles of the press—they ultimately wish to achieve the same goal. Both want a nation that allows for as much expression as possible, which is seen by their implementation of statutes to protect free speech. We do have to consider the difference in the social climate of the two countries as well. The United States is a super power that has millions of people to manage, while Denmark remains a quaint country that may be easier to allow different voices to be heard.


Works Cited:

“2015 World Press Freedom Index.” 2015 World Press Freedom Index. Reporters Without Borders, Apr. 2015. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Abend, Lisa. “Danish PM Defends Freedom of Speech After Attacks.” TIME. TIME Magazine, 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Belavusau, Uladzislau. Freedom of Speech: Importing European and US Constitutional Models in Transitional Democracies. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

“Danish History and Culture.” Denmark in Ukraine. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <;.

“Denmark.” Freedom of the Press. Freedom House, 2014. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.

Fouche, Gwladys. “Danish Court Dismisses Muhammad Cartoons Case.” Newspapers & Magazines. The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2006. Web. 7 Apr. 2015.

Jakobsen, Søren Sandfeld., and Sten Schaumburg-Müller. Media Law in Denmark. The Netherlands: Kluwer Law International, 2011. Print.

Jespersen, Knud J. V. A History of Denmark. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

Langsted, Lars Bo., Vagn Greve, and Peter Garde. Criminal Law in Denmark. The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1998. Print.

Melnick, Meredith. “Denmark Is Considered The Happiest Country. You’ll Never Guess Why.” The Huffington Post., 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Snyder v. Phelps. 131 S. Ct. 1207. United States Supreme Court. 2 Mar. 2011. Print.

Texas v. Johnson. 109 S. Ct. 2533. United States Supreme Court. 21 June 1989. Print.

“Three Berlingske Tidende Journalists Acquitted of State Security Charges.” Three Berlingske Tidende Journalists Acquitted of State Security Charges – Reporters Without Borders. Reporters Without Borders, 4 Dec. 2006. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Townsend, Gladys. Freedom of Speech: 141 Success Secrets. Emereo Publishing Co., 2014. Print.


(This essay was last updated on April 30, 2015.)


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