, Volume 53, Issue 4, pp 352–362 | Cite as

The Fear of Offending: Social Norms and Freedom of Expression

  • Kari Steen-JohnsenEmail author
  • Bernard Enjolras
Symposium: The Freedom of Expression


The topic of this paper is the social and normative conditions for exercising the freedom of speech in Norway. Based on a representative survey of the population, the authors ask which types of utterances are seen as acceptable on different arenas in Norway, and whether certain groups are more likely to withhold their own opinion, out of fear of offending others or of being exposed to ridicule. The analysis shows that the Norwegian population has a balanced view of the freedom of speech as weighed against other social values, such as the value of protecting vulnerable groups and not offending or harming particular groups or religions. There is a high degree of consensus on the balance of values: a majority chooses the middle standpoints. Furthermore, the analysis shows that many would limit their expressions when presented with the risk of offending or hurting others, a process that we term “self-limitation”. Depending on the perspective on freedom of speech, such self-limitation will be interpreted differently. One important point however, is that self-limitation may lead to spirals of silence, where certain voices are less heard.


Freedom of speech Self censorship Spirals of silence 

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Social ResearchOsloNorway

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