One of the great torrents in our society is the debate over free speech in our university culture or, rather the use of speech codes based on European rather than American conceptions of free speech. Thus, we have discussions of various issues, such as trigger warnings, free speech zones. Events at Missouri State university and Yale last year, along with the famous “Chalkening” at Emory have made this a national issue. Books have been written on this topic, most recently by Kirsten Powers. It is not only Liberals, however, who challenge this policy, while Powers writes about the American Left on University campuses today, it was the right who opposed free speech on campuses during the Vietnam War protests. Recent statements by San Francisco forty-niners Colin Kaeperick for not standing during the national anthem reveals that many social conservatives have similar weaknesses on the principle of free speech as many liberals do in questions regarding the Dallas Cowboy’s desire to support police with a decal on their helmet.
But why should a Christian, or anyone else, for that matter, care about free speech? From a practical standpoint, because it is a necessary element for a democracy to function; In a democratic, constitutional republic, one of the necessary prerequisites is a society that agrees to settle its differences by force of argument rather than force of arms, and thus it becomes necessary to allow all comers to make their case. In a sense then the arguments for democracy of separation of powers are therefore arguments for free speech.
For many Evangelicals, the points I made in discussing freedom of religion would demonstrate freedom of speech as a corollary. If man has free will, and can accept or reject God’s plan of salvation, then it seems one must also allow them access to the arguments both for an against His plan. There are three major points where Christians can be accused of hypocrisy on this issue, and one major modern assault. Let’s look at a Christian response on all four.
Christians have long been opposed to pornographic material, and in many cases by legal suppression, so is this a violation of the principle of free speech? The answer is simply, no, because pornography is not speech. Speech is quite simply the ability to communicate an idea, principle or idea. Similarly, when the constitution refers to expression in the first amendment, it refers to word choice, genre, and other elements of “written expression,” which are means to the end of communicating a point. Pornography, however, doesn’t seek to communicate an idea at all – not even ideas about human sexuality – rather it is about exciting the libido. Speech requires thought, pornographic material is antithetical to thinking.
A second and related issue is the question of access to speech by minors. But, then, we have never understood minors to possess full access of their constitutional rights. For example, even the staunchest proponent of the most expansive interpretation of the second amendment (say someone who argued citizens should be allowed to buy surface to air missiles) would not argue said right applies to a toddler. Similarly, the right to access speech have long been understood to be filtered through the minor’s parents. When Christians and others argue that the public square should have some elements that are child friendly, or family friendly, what is really being argued is that society should not seek to make end runs around the parent’s obligation to serve as a guardian and protector, or developer of a child’s mind and spirit.
Some have also argued that Christian institutions stifle free speech by imposing speech codes on college campuses. This was an important discussion when the Liberty University Young Democrats club was disallowed recognition as an official club at Liberty University (mysteriously, when Liberty’s subsequent decision to do the same thing with the Young Republican’s club did not create the same stir among the popular press). This goes back to one of the major flaws in modern thought, it seems we assume an institution is either an educational institution or a religious one, I would assume many, if not most are both. The reason, however, why Christian institutions are not enemies of free speech, even when they impose codes involving speech or restricting education to those signing doctrinal statements is that these are decisions made by the student and staff at those institutions before signing those statements. It should be assumed, if a student signs a statement such as that of the creed I regularly signed at Bob Jones University, they do so not because they are being bullied into the decision, but rather because they already agree with the positions espoused. In accepting the limits to a certain breadth of opinion, the theological student at such an institution gains a greater depth of understanding of Christian theology and thought, something a believer may very well prize, similarly, since these institutions serve in part to train pastors, they provide an to associated churches credentials for pastoral ministry, something that requires a doctrinal commitment of some kind. Nor is this uncommon in other fields; an Evangelical systematic theology class begins with the assumptions that Evangelical Christianity is true (it is in a sense, post apologetic and post conversion), this is similar to the physics professor who does not bother trying to prove that the universe we exist in is actually real.
A second consideration is the false idea that students in Christian colleges are not being exposed to the breadth of scholarship, simply because the facility is an Evangelical one. While at the Bob Jones Memorial Seminary, I read Bultmann’s New Testament Theology, various pieces written by Karl Barth on the Bible, various writings by Catholic scholars (often in areas where Evangelicals and Catholics disagree), a textbook on Church history written from a decidedly non-Evangelical basis. In short, the marketplace of ideas is perhaps an old fashioned idea, in reality we have an internet of free speech, and even those in Christian research universities interact with those outside of Christianity. In a sense, the Evangelical university and seminary serves as Christian think-tanks, interacting with the philosophical ideas and worldviews of their non-Christian counterparts.
Racism et al.
An argument often raised for abandoning the American concept of Free Speech for the more limited concepts of Europe is the belief that harm is done by allowing racists and others access to the market of free ideas. But of course fails to reckon with the importance of the civil society underlying the First Amendment. In reality, while the law is extremely important in governing a society, if the civil society does not support the rule of law, then the rule of law ultimately will not matter. Take for example the various racially inspired lynchings in the South (and in a few cases in the North as well, though we seem less willing to note the serious issues with racism above the Mason-Dixon line). Technically, such acts were illegal, but when the Klan hung someone, local law enforcement often looked the other way, and if there was any interference in Klan business, jury nullification would prevent justice from being enacted under the rule of law. A civil society that accepts the basic principles of a constitutional republic is a prerequiste for the actualization of any freedom.
Freedom of speech is not the freedom to be heard (I have the right, after all, to choose what radio stations to which I listen, what news programs I choose to watch, and what books I choose to read), and it is not the freedom not to be offended (otherwise, I suggest that the Beverly Hillbillies should be taken off the air on the same grounds that one might show disapproval of minstrel shows). Freedom of speech is the right to make a case for my position. The thing is, human beings will make a case for what they believe even if illegal, and if racially insensitive speech is made forbidden, then the Neo-nazis and others from their off shore websites, will simply make the argument that the reason why the government forbids them the right to speak is because the government cannot answer their objections. Of course, when allowed access to the market of ideas, such groups usually find themselves out of favor – the problem with racism isn’t that it is unpalatable, its that it is certifiably wrong, and the pseudo-scientific reasoning of the early progressive movement will not find lodging in an era where their ideas are known to be false.
The second and larger problem, though, is that defining hate speech can be made so broad it becomes idea suppression, in the guise of protecting minorities. One problem with racism is that, for many the accusation of racism is not handled as we do accusations of other things: it is usually the accuser and not the defendant who has the burden of proof, but with allegations of racism, this is often reversed. Thus, one can simply argue that certain ideas do not have the right to be in the market place of ideas because of some suspected hint of racism, or because someone who was a racist might have advocated something similar at some point in American history. Thus, we have events like the “chalkening” at Emory university where pro-trump messages were written on college campuses were something the student body demanded to be suppressed, on the grounds that it was racially insensitive. One may well oppose the current republican candidate on many grounds, including insensitivity (a case he seems quite capable of making on his own, without the assistance of the students of emory), but to argue that only Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton signs should be allowed on campus means only one party’s platform is given room for actual debate. Similar things are true in debating tax structures, welfare reform and many other modern political discussions when someone is always willing to somehow use race to try to attack the character rather than the arguments of their opponents.
Americans for years used to say, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death to defend your right to say it.” This is something we have lost, likely because without something like protestantism’s emphasis on the freewill of man, one has very little to actually ground this principle in. As noted previously, Christians view mankind as having dignity because they are made in the image of God; the modern atheist has no such basis to ground his desire for dignity, and forever faces the conflict of his worldview. I suggest the wars over free speech are simply a symptom of the deeper elements of the culture wars.
This, of course, means great care must still be used in discussing pornography, the Supreme Court is famous for noting difficulties in defining obscenity, and such care is reasonable from a legal perspective.
I have noticed American leftists are highly selective in what acts of stereotyping they considered objectionable, I have yet to hear Clinton era democrats reprimanded for their derogatory discussions of those living in trailer parks from those who seem to delight in referring to any reference to violence in the inner cities as inspired by some hidden racism.
I say many because, as noted in the previous footnote, Americans are highly selective in their outrage in this area as well. Joe Biden has made comments about minorities that ought to make American’s cringe, and when Hillary Clinton was accused of anti-semiticism by important democratic party donors, little was discussed by the mainstream press. The same persons who insinuated that Reagan’s discussions of state’s rights was an appeal to racists rarely asked how many lynchings Robert Byrd of West Virginia assisted with while a member of the Klu Klux Klan; he was considered repentant meanwhile, Strom Thurmond’s repudiation of racism was generally considered suspect.
In a bit of mischief, I could easily compare Bernie Sander’s platform to Hitler’s 25 points, it would be a fallacy, but no one today seems to understand great care should be used in comparing candidates to Hitler. Still, if I did so, I doubt I would be given the same audience as the anti-Trump crowd.