By Alex Denny

In a world where the prevailing presence of free speech and free press is becoming increasingly debated, it’s essential that the general public is informed on how the American First Amendment plays out globally. In Sweden, a Constitutional Monarchy and the third-largest country in the EU, free speech and free press is a highly treasured component of daily life.  Consistently rated as one of the top fifteen countries in terms of free press, Sweden has been on a [mostly] positive track, landing at number ten in the most recent research (Reporters Without Borders). While Sweden is ranked the lowest of the Scandinavian countries, (Finland and Denmark ranking first and sixth respectively), it ranks twenty-two places higher than the United States.


Historical Background

Established in the Middle Ages, Sweden has a long and intricate history. The country has been long known for its neutrality in World War I and World War II, and has maintained a neutral war position by continuing to stay out of NATO. It wasn’t until 1995, after the Cold War, that the country opted to join the EU. Since joining the EU, Sweden has been on an uphill stride, ranking high in a range of global studies. In 2013, The Economist ranked Sweden as number one in a study of the best governed nations (Wallace). The country holds a commendable level of respect from the majority of the Western world and seems to easily adjust to the ever-changing global nature, holding dear to its motto: “For Sweden – With the Times”.

Free Speech

While Sweden has an official King, the King is mostly a figurehead and the bulk of the power and decisions made come from the Prime Minister and the Parliament. This decision to strip the King of his powers came in one of Sweden’s most instrumental documents, the Instrument of Government. This document came about in 1974 and set the standards for the current state of the Swedish government. The 1974 Instrument of Government is one of four fundamental laws of the Swedish Constitution. The four include the aforementioned 1974 Instrument of Government, the 1810 Act of Succession, the 1949 Freedom of the Press Act, and the 1991 Fundamental Law on the Freedom of Expression (The Constitution).

Act One of the Fundamental Law on the Freedom of Expression states that:

Every Swedish citizen shall be guaranteed the right under this Fundamental Law, vis-à-vis the public institutions, publicly to express his ideas, opinions and sentiments on sound radio, television and certain like transmissions, films, videograms, sound recordings and other technical recordings, and in general communicate information on any subject whatsoever. The purpose of freedom of expression under this Fundamental Law is to secure the free exchange of opinion, free and comprehensive information, and freedom of artistic creation. No restriction of this freedom shall be permitted other than such as follows from this Fundamental Law.


The Swedish commitment to freedom of expression is upheld on almost every statute, with the exception of hate speech.  Sweden defines hate speech as, “publicly making statements that threaten or express disrespect for an ethnic group or similar group regarding their race, skin colour, national or ethnic origin, faith or sexual orientation” (The Swedish Penal Code). The most prominent case featuring Sweden’s policy against hate speech came in 2005 when preacher, Ake Green, delivered a sermon condemning homosexuality in a number of derogatory terms. The speech was reported to the police by an LGBT association and Green was convicted by the district court. He appealed and the Court of Appeals overturned his conviction in the name of free speech. This overturning was held when the case made it to the Supreme Court. It was quite the convoluted case as Green’s speech was not protected by Sweden’s Freedom of Expression and had the courts only had to keep Swedish law in mind, Green would have been convicted. However, as Sweden is a part of the EU, the courts have to keep their decisions in line with the freedoms provided by the European Convention on Human Rights which gave Green the right to deliver the damning speech.

Article Ten of the European Convention on Human Rights says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers” (Council of Europe). The ideas expressed in the Article were further defined in numerous landmark cases, one of the most instrumental being Steel and Morris v. United Kingdom or as it is more famously known, the Mclibel case (Steel and Morris v. United Kingdom). Two environmental agents, Steel and Morris published a pamphlet encouraging the public not to eat at McDonalds and claiming a number of grievances against the corporation. McDonalds sued the activists and won in the High Court, finding Steel and Morris guilty of libel and defamation. The pair appealed and the Court of Appeals, while still finding the pair guilty, reduced their fine. Steel and Morris, with nowhere left to turn, brought it to the European Court of Human Rights. In a landmark decision, the Court overturned the conviction, ordered the UK government to pay Steel and Morris a dividend, and openly criticized the UK courts for discouraging the public from speaking out against corporations.

Today in Sweden, the right to free speech is highly regarded as an integral part of the relationship between the people and the government. Between the courts of Sweden and the highest power, the European Court of Human Rights, the people of Sweden are afforded a high amount of leniency. With the exception of hate speech, (and the great amount of proof that has to be given in order to make something considered hate speech), and child pornography, the Swedish government allows their citizens to speak their mind.  Until 2011, film was censored in regards to excessive violence. However, in 2011 the censorship of film was removed, allowing almost no restrictions to the people (Lawrence).

Free Press

Freedom of Press is guaranteed under the 1949 Freedom of the Press Act. The Act was not only a cornerstone of the Swedish constitution, but was written in a way that allowed for very few loopholes. “The way of thinking expressed by the Freedom of the Press Act of the Swedish Realm has today become a cornerstone of the worldwide struggle for freedom of information. It is conceived as the prerequisite of freedom of expression, widely seen as belonging to human rights” (Mannanin).  Freedom of Press has long been important to the Swedish people. Going back as far as 1766, Adolphus Frederick, the King of Sweden, issued an ordinance saying:

That, having considered the great advantages that flow to the public from a lawful freedom of writing and of the press, and whereas an unrestricted mutual enlightenment in various subjects not only promotes the development and dissemination of sciences and useful crafts but also offers greater opportunities to each of our loyal subjects to gain improved knowledge and appreciation of a wisely ordered system of government (Van Heland).

This ordinance made Sweden the first country ever to abolish censorship. Since then, the government has kept up on those allowances, even going as far as to allow all government documents to be accessible by the public. According to Freedom House, in 2012 over 91% of Swedish citizens took advantage of the options and accessed the documents (Freedom House). The only restriction is if the document falls under a secrecy order. Even then, the document will be made public within seventy years at most.

The only hardline restriction that the Swedish government seems to have in regards to freedom of press is in relation to pro-Nazi sentiments. In 2012, a member of the Swedish Resistance Movement posted comments on a website referring to Jewish people as “capitalist parasites” (Freedom House). He was sentenced to a month in jail. There has also been much discussion over whether or not anti-immigration views and subsequent publications can be seen as hate speech. There are quite a few large groups within Sweden that hold anti-immigration laws and have been notoriously outspoken about the cause. The government currently maintains that that particular viewpoint falls under hate speech and have been quick to act on any publications with that bias.

Country Comparison

On paper, it seems that the freedom of speech and press within America and within Sweden are fairly similar. The Bill of Rights guarantees freedoms for the American people just as the Swedish Constitution does. Both countries have worked hard to allow their people the freedom of expression and have fought for all types of speech to be allowed. Both countries have a press that is allowed to publish and discuss more freely than more than half of the rest of the world. However, when it comes to transparency of government, for the benefit of the press, the Swedish are miles ahead of the U.S. This can easily be seen from situations such as The Pentagon Papers and Julian Assange situation The Swedish hardline on pro-Nazi discussion is reminiscent of America’s past dealings with communism and the communist party of the 1960’s, both situations involving the government’s intolerance for a single viewpoint.

Freedom House, an organization that ranks freedoms on a global scale, has a freedom of the press ranking of 1-100 with 1 being the most free. As of 2013, Sweden ranked as a ten and the U.S. ranked as an eighteen, a fairly close score. In the perspective of global rankings, both America and most of Europe rank in the higher percentile. However, it’s important to note that Sweden and the Nordic countries have almost always ranked higher on free speech, free press, and the respect of the government than the United States. While America has come a long way and had much to be proud of, it could stand to adopt some of Sweden’s governmental transparency statutes and allowances.





 Works Cited

“Ake Green Swedish Supreme Court Decision.” Ake Green Swedish Supreme Court Decision. Justices of the Supreme Court, 29 Dec. 2005. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

“The Constitution.” – Riksdagen.se. The Swedish Parliament, 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

“Council of Europe – ETS No. 005 – Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.” Council of Europe, 1 June 2010. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Lawrence, Eric. “Film Censorship in Sweden.” Hollywood Quarterly 5.3 (1951): 264-69. Print.

Manninen, Juha. “Anders Chydenius And The Origins Of World’s First Freedom Of Information Act.” Global Media Journal: Indian Edition (2010): 18. Supplemental Index. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

“Press Freedom Index 2013 – Reporters Without Borders.” Reporters Without Borders. N.p., Spring 2013. Web. 25 Mar. 2014.

Steel and Morris v. United Kingdom. The European Court of Human Rights. 15 May 2005. Print.

“Sweden.” Freedom House. N.p., 2013. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.

The Swedish Penal Code, §§ 3-179 (Ministry of Justice 1999). Print.

von Heland, Johan. “His Majesty’s Gracious Ordinance Relating To Freedom Of Writing And Of The Press (1766).” Global Media Journal: Indian Edition (2010): 8-17. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 26 Mar. 2014.

Wallace, Paul, ed. “The Next Supermodel: The Secret of Their Sucess.” The Economist 2 Feb. 2013: n. pag. Print.

This post was last updated on April 30, 2014


One Response to Sweden

  1. hajarah ibraheem says:

    what category does Nigeria fall please?

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