The most valued liberties in every society form a window into which we can see them more clearly. Many Brazilians believe that freedom of speech, which protects against censorship, is not as sacred as the right to privacy.
This is why many of them were in favor of a successful lawsuit that Roberto Carlos brought in 2007 in order to have a book about his life withdrawn from bookstores. In an article published by O Globo in 2013, Chico Buarque, one of the many musicians that supported Roberto, defended the right of a public figure to protect his personal life.
A judicial action of this type would be unthinkable in the United States, where there is an abundance of unauthorized biographies, many of which are defamatory or take great liberties with the facts. Furthermore, the decision by the Brazilian Supreme Court to prohibit the subjects of unauthorized biographies from barring their publications would have been unnecessary in the United States.
Why? The Constitution of the United States protects freedom of speech more forcefully than it protects the right to privacy. If a biography is defamatory, the subject of the biography can sue the authors and editors.
The American Constitution sees the right of a citizen to express his or her opinion as fundamental in a democracy. The free flow of ideas, opinions and complaints constitutes democratic oxygen — so much so that in 1978, American courts refused to bar neo-Nazis wearing swastikas from marching in a Jewish suburb of Chicago.
The American right to freedom of speech is as old as the country itself. When American colonists in the 18th century protested against the authority of the British government to tax them, the British government taxed them even more. The subsequent rebellion of the colonists was the spark that gave rise to the American War of Independence.
Perhaps Brazilians do not see freedom of speech as such a fundamental right because it did not play a role in the independence of Brazil, which derived from succession rather than revolution. Perhaps Brazilians don’t value this liberty as much as Americans because they didn’t fight and die for this right.
Yet Brazilians are putting this right into practice with increasing frequency. They did it collectively in the protests, “Rights, now!” in 1983-1984, reclaiming direct presidential elections, as well as in the protests against Collor in 1992.* In June 2013, Brazilians took to the streets again in defense of the no-fee policy for collective transport. In 2015, the Brazilian elite promoted the banging of pots and pans in protest against the government program.
Americans publicly protest not only to contest governmental policies, but also to defend marginalized groups in which they take part or through which they identify themselves. In 2014 and 2015, blacks (and empathetic whites) protested in the streets against the deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hand of white police in various cities — Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. I have never seen a protest of this sort in Brazil, where unarmed blacks are frequent victims of police violence.
One reason why the collective defense of marginalized groups is so rare in this country is because blacks, gays and feminists are much less organized than in the United States. Yet,= even if Brazilians don’t exercise their freedom of speech as widely as Americans, the two nations would profoundly feel the lack of this right if it were taken from them. As Cecília Meireles wrote, “Freedom [is] a word fed by human dreams, that no one explains and no one understands.”
*Editor’s Note: Collor refers to Fernando Collor de Mello, the president of Brazil from 1990 to 1992.