Politicians and opinion-makers around the world  often assume that there is a trade-off between civil rights and national safety, although the association is theoretically ambiguous. Different theoretical arguments support both a positive and negative association between freedom of expression and terrorism: Some hold that restricting the freedom of expression will hinder the coordination of terrorist activities while others argue that freedom of expression functions as a safety valve of dissent and helps the state identify possible terrorist. In this paper, we therefore explore this association by estimating the effect of degrees of freedom of expression on the risk of terrorist attacks. We explore it empirically in a large panel of 162 countries from around the world, which we observe each year between 1970 and 2016. Distinguishing between media freedom and discussion freedom, and separating democracies and autocracies, we find no support for the view that restricting freedom of expression helps avoiding terrorism. Conversely, our findings show that discussion freedom is unambiguously associated with less terrorism in democracies.

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Jacob Mchangama is the Founder and Executive Director of The Future of Free Speech. He is also a research professor at Vanderbilt University and a Senior Fellow at The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).