Expression has never been truly free, so long as two or more people were involved. The moment Thag threatened to punch Og’s nose for insisting that mammoth tasted better than sloth, a limit existed. Og could continue to declaim the virtues of mammoth, but he also understood that there would be a reaction to his words and it might involve physical rebuttal, so to speak. However, the State did not attempt to prevent him from opining. That would come later, with the advent of the State and, I suspect, of state religions.
Why religions? Because if you blaspheme the gods of the state, you are betraying the state, insulting the god-king (Egypt), and possibly ticking off the deities who keep terrible things from happening to everyone. No one with half a brain wanted to irk the storm god, or to endanger the harvest by saying that the king—the connection between the gods and mankind—was an incompetent rat-bastard. In Shang and Zhou-dynasty China, the monarch controlled your access to the tools needed to venerate your ancestors in ways that would benefit the ancestors the most and give them the most power, and thus to provide a form of security for your family, yet another reason not to speak unkindly of those in power. This is also why Christians got in so much trouble with Rome. Imperial Rome didn’t care what you believed, so long as you upheld the contract with the State gods. To do otherwise was to endanger the State and everyone in it, so failure to properly worship the State gods was treason.
By the late Middle Ages in Europe, laws existed against blasphemy, against insulting certain people, and against stirring up trouble in general. People lived in a world of group rights and group privileges, and in some cases group punishment. Laws against lese majesté, or insulting the monarch, existed around the world, and still do (for example, the Turkish penal code includes jail time for insulting “Turkishness” or Turkey and the Turkish government.) You did not want to insult the deity, or the monarch, because to do so was seen as lessening the power of the monarch, and a weak monarch led to nothing but trouble. England was a little different, but even so, limits existed. Two sources I’ve read maintain that a tradition existed in China where one could offer direct critiques of the emperor and government, but one was expected to commit suicide after presenting said critique as proof that one was serious. Such critiques were taken at face value and considered, but seem to have been rather rare.
One of the key features of the United States, inherited from English Common Law and elaborated somewhat, is that Americans have absolute right to freedom of speech so long as that freedom does not endanger others or lead directly to violence. The one exception, in general, is making threats against the life of the current president.* Otherwise the US has no lese majesté laws, nothing saying one person cannot criticize, insult, or otherwise speak their mind. There may be consequences for doing so, ranging from slander and libel laws to getting a fist in the nose or having people stop doing business at your store, but the federal and state governments do not interfere with speech. At least, that’s what the Constitution says. Starting 30 years or so ago, “protections” have crept in along with the idea of “hate speech.”
In other countries, insulting the monarch or heir to the throne is still punishable by a fine or prison sentence, although in general, you can insult someone else’s monarch. Germany had a law on the books to prevent abusive speech against monarchs that had gone by the wayside until it was invoked last year by Pres. Erdogan of Turkey after a German humorist made fun of him. The humorist was charged with insulting a ruler, and after the hue and cry in the media, the Bundestag voted to eliminate the law once charges were dropped, and it will go away on January 1, 2018.
As stated at the beginning of this little essay, so long as two or more people are involved, there has never been pure freedom of speech, the ability to say whatever one desires without fear of consequences. Today a new check on speech has appeared, promulgated by those who insist that certain groups need to be protected from hurtful words and ideas. In many ways, campus speech codes and federal hate crime laws are not that far from China’s Great Firewall and Sweden’s increasing media control. According to the US federal government, killing or assaulting someone because you dislike all [group members] is worse than just killing or assaulting them. College administrators and activists argue that hurting someone’s feelings is unjustified and should be banned, even if that person doesn’t know they have been insulted, or the speaker doesn’t realize that the words are an insult. Personally, I’m curious to see how “Intro to Criminal Law” is going to be taught without referring to such crimes as blackmail and rape, but I suppose a way will be found.
The laws outside the US would not be of interest to me in other than an academic sense, except that I cannot release the next Cat book in the UK and EU because of laws restricting defamation of religion, one religion in particular. Canada seems to be heading in the same direction, as has Australia. Which if you stop to think about it, is quite a slap against Muslims. The laws imply that Muslims are so delicate and their religion so tenuous that criticism of Islam and of followers of Islam causes physical harm and spiritual and emotional trauma. In reality, I suspect it has more to do with the governments’ desire to prevent the riots and mayhem that have unfortunately become associated with how some Muslims respond to rumors of insult.
Americans are unusual in that we have traditionally, at the national level, believed in the free expression of ideas and the unfettered ability to criticize government, the rich, politicians, religion, and pretty much everything else we can think of to gripe about and make fun of. No idea was seen as so fragile and precious that it needed federal protection from criticism. State and local laws and customs differed, and again, your right to insult me has never meant that I wouldn’t thump you for saying that my mamma’s biscuits were so hard that the county road crew used them to fill pot-holes. Incitement to riot is not considered protected speech, But unpopular opinions, especially unpopular opinions, have been protected. At least they were. Now?
*This may be changing, at least as applied and investigated.