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Hungary’s wariness of forced speech reflects post-communist ideals

Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images
Laszlo Balogh/Getty Images

The premium that Hungarians place on free speech reflects an American posture of centuries past.

It was the abolition of censorship that Hungarians demanded first during the famous 1848 revolution against the Habsburgs, and it was free speech that they demanded when the 1956 revolution broke out.

Indeed, America, whose inaugural constitutional amendment enshrines the right to free speech, in large part has adopted a totalitarian mindset against which it once revolted.

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Not to generalize, since millions of Americans still value free speech in broad terms. Thankfully, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court agrees, too, given the justices’ 2023 ruling in 303 Creative v. Elenis.

But although this Supreme Court precedent will exist for decades, its existence is a race against the morally declining court of public opinion — the very citizenry that elects the U.S. president who constructs the Supreme Court.

To summarize, in 303 Creative the high court ruled that forcing artists (including bakers, photographers, and florists) to custom-design expressive products that violate their consciences is a violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

And while the Left decried the ruling as “bigoted,” it ultimately protected liberals and conservatives alike. 

I moved to Hungary’s capital, Budapest, as a senior research fellow shortly after covering the 303 Creative case. I hadn’t been in Hungary for a week before asking an attorney how the nation’s courts likely would have ruled on a similar case where artists were sued for declining services that violated their consciences. His answer was as simple as it was telling.

“I don’t know. We don’t sue for stuff like that here.”

“Good for you, Hungary,” I thought to myself.

To be clear, although Hungary is a largely conservative country, Budapest, like any metropolis, is quite cosmopolitan. Yet even Hungarian liberals I’ve conversed with agree that the government shouldn’t force someone to express himself in a way that violates his conscience. For most people here, that brings back the worst memories of the communist era.

For Hungarians, it is not the government’s role to determine what people should say or not say. It is not the government’s job to force habits or lifestyles onto their citizenry, as was argued by National Assembly member Balazs Orban in his book “The Hungarian Way of Strategy.”

The ongoing dialogue led many a Hungarian colleague of mine to ask: Why wouldn’t the American customers just find a different artist?

And: Why are they specifically targeting artists who they know won’t provide the service?

Their curiosity rightly suggests a harassing agenda by the customers. Case in point: Jack Phillips, the Colorado baker and “cake artist” at the center of the case known as Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado, was sued for refusing to custom-design a cake celebrating a same-sex couple’s marriage in 2012.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Phillips’ favor. But since then, he’s been sued twice for the same type of refusal — both times by the same customer.

This is clearly harassment.

When I explained this to my Hungarian friends, some of whom call themselves liberal, they were somewhat surprised that Americans (those from the land of the free) would act this way — and furthermore, that the courts would entertain these elementary affairs so often.

This makes me ask, why? Why are Hungarians — conservatives and liberals alike — such ardent supporters of free speech?

Hungarians’ appreciation for freedom stems from their understanding of oppression. As a reminder, Hungary’s release from Soviet communism is still recent. Indeed, most people reading this article were alive when Hungary’s democracy was commissioned in 1989.

The people of Hungary know communism — not simply from history books, but from life itself. The youngest of Hungarians have first-tier sources of communist history from their parents, and their grandparents can tell them of Hungary’s attempt to overthrow Soviet oppression in 1956.

Hungarians know that communism doesn’t work. Hungarians know that communism doesn’t simply limit a people, but it oppresses them—sometimes violently. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, several unarmed Hungarians were shot and killed in Kossuth Square, outside the National Assembly building that houses the nation’s parliament.

Hungarians know too well that freedom, without free speech, is a mask for tyranny. Indeed, without freedom of speech, one cannot live freely—if live at all.

America once had this understanding of liberty, too, which is why the only intended bias of the First Amendment was a partiality toward freedom.

Ideological bias against free speech is not only inconsistent with but contrary to freedom. To quote Kristen Waggoner, the lawyer who defended 303 Creative before the Supreme Court and also is president and CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom: “If we desire freedom for ourselves, we must defend it for others.”

America, despite being a global superpower, is still in its historic infancy.

Not 250 years old, and yet how quickly a country birthed in blood-bought freedom went from “there can be no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech” (Benjamin Franklin) to “you must express yourself in a way that violates your conscience or else lose your livelihood” (the modern American Left).

Arguably, America’s Founders revolted against lesser tyranny. 

The courts of Hungary have yet to decide whether artists may be forced to go against their consciences. Perhaps such a case will never reach Hungary’s high courts.

That’s not apathy on the part of Hungary’s courts, but rather integrity on the part of its people. 

Originally published at The Daily Signal. 

John Wesley Reid is a Sr. Fellow with the Hungary Foundation focusing on free speech and religious freedom. John is a U.S. Marine veteran, former firefighter, and spent six years in Washington D.C. in various media capacities with a focus on abortion, free speech, and the Supreme Court. 

Before moving to Budapest, Hungary, John’s tenure in D.C. included the roles of editor-in-chief for Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center, digital media director for Family Research Council, and social media news producer for CBN News. He’s an avid gun collector and an alumni of Biola University and Hillsdale College’s James Madison Fellowship.

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