Are there (preferably democratic) countries that restrict speech that causes offense? I'm mostly interested in the following categories:

  • Personal offense.
  • Offense of the king, president or any public figure.
  • Offense of a group of people, of any nation, race, religion, sex, orientation etc.
  • Religious offense toward Christ, Mohammad, God etc.

By "offense," I include things like profanity and images, but not calls to violence or riot.

I'm especially interested in any country that restricts the first category, and any country that restricts some parts of the third but not others; however, I'll settle for any democratic country that restricts parts of the four. If anyone could give a breakdown of how common it is to restrict the four categories (only one or two countries, vs. a sizable number), that'd also be nice.

  • 2
    Welcome to StackExchange! This is a very broad question! You would probably attract more interest by narrowing your question, or splitting it into several questions. In particular, some elements of C could be prohibited in a given country, but not others. For example, blaspheme is a crime in Iran, but I guess insults towards homosexuals is not a problem.
    – Taladris
    Jan 10, 2015 at 13:00
  • 2
    There are ~200 countries in the world; a list of all of them and their laws in this respect is too long for a Stack Exchange answer. If you narrowed your question some, it'd be much more answerable.
    – cpast
    Jan 10, 2015 at 17:14
  • Ireland has blasphemy laws. justice.ie/en/JELR/Pages/…
    – liftarn
    Jan 16, 2015 at 9:43
  • This question is too broad, as every country at least partially restricts at least one of the four points. Libel and defamation laws apply to the 1st point. Hate crime and blasphemy laws apply to the 3rd point. You will have to be more specific on what you're looking for or what may or may not count towards a specific category.
    – David S
    Mar 18 at 16:39
  • What do you mean by "personal offense"? Many countries, e.g. Italy, have criminal laws against libelling individuals (although in others it's a civil matter). But there are many other ways you could offend a person.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 18 at 16:57

5 Answers 5


Since you are asking if any country generally considered to be democratic restricts offensive speech, I will offer France as an example. French law punishes personal offenses, offenses against public figures and some institutions and offenses against certain groups but does not protect religious symbols as such. Specifically, article 29 of the law on the freedom of the press provides that:

Toute expression outrageante, termes de mépris ou invective qui ne renferme l'imputation d'aucun fait est une injure.

In English:

All offensive expressions, terms of disdain or invectives that do not ascribe specific facts are insults [the word “insulte” also exists in French but has no legal meaning so I will use “insult” as translation for “injure”.]

Article 33 of the same law provides that such insults carry

  • A € 12,000 fine when addressed to the “courts, tribunals, the army, the navy, the air force […] one or several members of the government, one or several members of either chamber of parliament, a civil servant” and a few other groups.
  • A € 12,000 fine when addressed to a private person but only if it was “unprovoked”.
  • A € 22,500 fine and a six month jail term when addressed to a person or a group because of “their origin, their belonging or not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a religion […] their gender, their sexual orientation or their disability”.

There used to be separate provisions punishing insults against foreign head of states and against France's own president but as of 2015 those are not part of the law anymore. Insults against the French president could still be punished using the article protecting other public figures.

The last time someone was sentenced for insulting the president in France was in 2008. That person held a sign reading “Get lost, you bloody idiot” (a phrase the president uttered himself a few months earlier) during an official visit in his town. France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for this and ultimately removed this provision from the law.

On the other hand, religious symbols or figures are not protected as such by French law. You won't find any law defining blasphemy in general law (but see below) or punishing offenses against Christ or Christianity. But there is a fine line between insulting a religion and insulting a group of people because of their religion.

Case in point is Charlie Hebdo, the satire weekly that was attacked in January 2015. It has frequently been sued, among others for its caricatures on catholic themes. It won most of these trials but did lose once, in 1996. Another trial took place after it published the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad caricatures. Among the three caricatures named by the plaintiffs, the court deemed that one (the one by Kurt Westergaard) did in fact amount to an insult against Muslims (but it ruled that it should be interpreted in a broader context and ultimately found the paper not guilty).

A curiosity is Alsace-Moselle (the region in the east of France that was German between 1871 and 1918). It still retains a number of specific laws (“droit local”) enacted by the German Empire and never abolished in France, including a provision punishing “blasphemy” (see franceinfo.fr and lalsace.fr). This law is still on the books but it's basically obsolete and has not been used recently to my knowledge.

Finally, there is also a law against “offenses [outrage] against the national hymn or the tricolor flag”, which has been compared to a kind of “secular blasphemy” by critics. Unlike many such laws in other countries, this one was enacted very recently (2003) following some controversies about the attitude of crowds when the national hymn was played at the beginning of football matches. It's not part of the aforementioned “law on the freedom of the press” and only applies to some public events (i.e. it does not prevent you from making fun of the flag or hymn in a cartoon or a song).


This answer talks only about the situation in Germany.

•Personal offense.

Insulting, slander and defamation of a specific person are forbidden by §185 - §187 of the criminal code.

•Offense of the king, president or any public figure.

§188 deals specifically with slander or defamation against a politician. The punishment is slightly harder when used to interfere with their political work, but the definition isn't extended beyond that which also applies to private people.

•Offense of a group of people, of any nation, race, religion, sex, orientation etc.

§130 of the German criminal code (Public Incitement) forbids to call for violent actions against groups of the population based on nationality, religion or ethnicity or against individual people because they belong to such a group. The same paragraph also forbids holocaust denial or holocaust approval ("assault the human dignity of the victims by approving of, denying or rendering harmless the violent and arbitrary National Socialist rule").

•Religious offense toward Christ, Mohammad, God etc.

The German criminal code also has the §166 which forbids to insult religious groups in a way which may cause civil unrest. In the light of the recent attack in Paris, this "blasphemy paragraph" is again matter of public discussion. There are both people who want to make it stricter as well as those who want to abolish it completely.

  • 1
    I'd add that §130 is generally targeted at minorities, see the case of Karabulut saying that "the germans are a race of dogs", in which §130 was denied because you cannot incite hate against the majority of the population („Bei allen Personen mit deutscher Staatsbürgerschaft handelt es sich um die Bevölkerungsmehrheit und daher nicht um einen Teil der Bevölkerung“).
    – janh
    Aug 20, 2018 at 8:41
  • [English is my second language] from my reading insult, slander etc. aren't illegal as offensive speech, but because they (can) incur damage to someone, so these laws ban completely unoffensive speech as well (as in no insults, vulgarities etc. "merely" lies)
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 18 at 13:57
  • @Hobbamok How do you define "offensive speech" here? Do you mean just shouting profanity without targeting any specific person?
    – Philipp
    Mar 18 at 14:03
  • @Philipp that was my (admittedly intentionally narrow) definition more or less. Speech causing (somewhat) direct offense. Also primarily to add context to it, not necessarily to undermine your quite thurough answer
    – Hobbamok
    Mar 18 at 14:07
  • 1
    @Hobbamok Most of these are a result of article 1 of the German constitution stating that "Human dignity is untouchable", so they are a protection of an individual's dignity from abuse. Neither gods, nor ideologies, nor collectives have that protection though there are practical measures banning speech that seeks to be offensive. So criticizing ideologies is fair game but just publicly mocking CORE VALUES to create outrage is forbidden. Though what is protected here is the ability to communicate peacefully (part of free speech) which is undercut with that, NOT the ideology or god.
    – haxor789
    Mar 18 at 14:51

I believe a number of European nations enforce laws punishing holocaust denial, which could be construed as offensive speech. I faintly recall France having a similar law regarding denial of Armenian genocide...? Many such nations are purportedly democratic.

  • 1
    (+1) France did pass a law that would make denial of the Armenian genocide punishable but it was blocked by the constitutional court (conseil constitutionnel). Not sure this is fully within the scope of this question though.
    – Relaxed
    Jan 19, 2015 at 3:57
  • 1
    Those rules are not about offensive speech though, they are about harmful speech. They consider holocaust denial to do actual harm. In that respect the laws are similar to, say, US laws against harassment or culpability when shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre.
    – user
    Aug 20, 2018 at 9:16
  • What is the word "purportedly" in the final sentence supposed to mean? Mar 20 at 13:23

India for one, is such a country. Though democratic in spirit, it has a large pressure into political correctness. So frequently do we see FIR's on Hurt Sentiments. The First Amendment itself to the Indian Constitution deals with restrictions on freedom of expression so that it is not abused. This satirical article might help relate.


Answering w.r.t. the law in the UK:

Personal Offence

The Communications Act of 2003 has defines sending 'grossly offensive [...], indecent, obscene, or menacing' messages sent over public means of communication (e.g. the internet) as an offence.

Offence of Public Figures

Defamation is an offence, provided it causes 'serious harm' to one's reputation. Your defences include 'truth' and 'honest opinion'.

Offence of a Group of People

Hate speech laws in England and Wales (e.g. the Public Order Act of 1986, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006) forbid hate speech based on a person's identity (colour, race, sex, disability, nationality/citizenship, national origin, ethnicity, religion, gender reassignment, or sexual orientation).

Religious Offence

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 holds a person using threatening words or behaviour, or displaying any threatening material that can spread religious hatred as guilty of an offence.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .