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What You Need to Know

The U.S. Constitution protects speech as a fundamental right; the government may regulate speech only in limited circumstances.  In recent years, several states and public universities have attempted to enact laws that prohibit insulting, threatening, or hateful speech related to race, gender, religion, sexuality, sexual orientation, and ethnicity, but the Supreme Court has typically struck down such laws if their main purpose was to suppress this type of expression.  If suppression of speech was only an incidental effect of a law, however, the law might be allowed to stand.  

Art that poses a specific threat to a person or group can cause problems under the law. 

The more specific the threat, the more likely it is that a court will determine that it isn’t the type of expression protected under the First Amendment.  Generally, only specific threats that target individuals at a particular time and place fall into this category, and the specific threat has to be likely to be carried out soon.  More general threatening language is protected under the First Amendment.  See more in the section on violence.

Web hosts and service providers are the primary sources of online speech restriction and regulation.

Since these companies are usually private actors (and not part of the government), the First Amendment doesn’t apply to them in the same way.  They are free to include provisions in their terms of service that allow them to censor content, and they have no obligation to post anyone’s work. 

The international landscape of free-speech protection regardless of viewpoint is more conservative. 

Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, India, and other countries have laws banning certain types of speech, which may include speech that considered derogatory to any group based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or religion.  These have the potential to affect U.S.-based artists when their art is accessible in foreign countries.  For more information, see the section on international issues.