Do we really want free speech? If so, why?

The question of free speech has been in the news a bit recently. First of all, there was the case of Facebook deciding to ban Britain First. Then a  comedian was prosecuted for making an offensive joke on YouTube. The issue with the joke was that it was racist/anti-Semitic.

What is our response? The natural response for people who disagree with such rulings is to say that these are examples of attacks on free speech. One of the primary motivations for defending free speech is that if the state and other powerful institutions that control communication come for one group they consider unwelcome and extreme now, then what is to stop them coming for me next.

That’s all well and good but are we saying that “free speech is an absolute, unrestricted moral value?” The answer is of course ” No we are not.” We put restrictions in place all the time. I am not free to write lies about you. I am not free to encourage you to commit crime. The Law recongises that there are constraints on my freedom to speak.  That sounds very pursuasive doesnt it? If I used it to say ” because you put some restrictions in, then you don’t really believe in freedom. You can’t ask for freedom to tell offensive jokes whilst refusing to allow me to incite someone to murder.” However, there’s a problem here. I am commiting one of the fallacies mentioned in Straight and Crooked Thinking.  I am taking an extreme point and using it to undermine the real point. We sometimes refer to this as ” whataboutery.” That’s not the point at all, freedom does not exclude the presence of rules, boundaries and constraints. Free societies are not lawless societies. My refusal to accept legal restrictions on some statements and actions does not prevent me from seeing the need in other cases.

But let’s think a bit further on this. Do I really think that I am free to say offensive and hurtful things? What about things like blasphemy? Am I free to use offensive language about God? Am I free to raise up an idol alongside God and give it equal honour and glory? Well taking the second issue first, no I am not free to do that because I am accountable to God for what I say and do. One day I will stand before him and face judgement. The Bible Tells Me that those things I have said were wrong and I was not free to do them.

What about telling hurtful jokes? What about being mean, spiteful, sexist, racist? Regardless of what hate crime laws have been introduced in recent years, am I really free to say those things? Again, the answer has to be ” No.” Again, I want to come back to what God’s Word says on those things as my starting point. I don’t have freedom to say what I like about my neighbour. I am to love my neighbour.

Then, there is a further factor. Those sorts of things should, in a healthy society be frowned upon. There is a recognition that there are social norms and values, that certain behaviours whether or not they are criminal are  unacceptable. We show that freedom to say what you like isn’t without boundaries with awkward silences, withdrawn invitations, stern looks, difficult conversations and requests to leave.

This links to something we have increasingly seen in recent years, the formal regulation of people in public life from journalists to MPs. Parliament is a fantastic example. Why were MPs not subject to intense regulation in the past? Well because the members were ” hoourable ladies and gentlemen.” Each of those words convey a sense of how someone should behave with honour, integrity, gentleness and respect. Sadly over the past few hundred years we have come to observe that we cannot trust our representatives to behave like that so we need codes of conduct to tell them not to harass their staff or fiddle their expenses. Society ceases to function by providing moral norms and so it depends on legal codes.

Back to Free Speech. My issue is not that we can and should say anything we like but that for all sorts of reasons, our government are not the right people to oversee speech. This links to thngs I have said previously about Public Theology. Christian thinkers through history have distinguished between sin and crime. They have also distinguished between spheres of authority, family, church, state. When an authority oversteps its boundaries and steps into the sphere of authority of one of the others then it becomes tyrannical and abusive. So for example, when a family head, church leaders or political party’s governing body tells the rape victim not to go to the police because ” they” will deal with it, then they are being tyrannical. Similarly, when the state wants to appoint guardians for every family or inspect what Sunday Schools teach, they are being tyrannical too.

Now there are a few good reasons as to why the state should not be involved in controlling speech.

First of all, we cannot trust them to make the right decisions about what is appropriate and inappropriate because they have deserted God’s Word. They cannot tell the difference between what is hurtful but true and loving and what is simply spiteful, demeaning, bullying and false.

Secondly, they have shown increasingly that they do not know how to determine the seriousness of offenses. When the police have not got time to investigate burglaries and when someone gets taken to court and risks fines or imprisonment  for saying unacceptable things not just for doing harmful things then something has gone wrong.

Thirdly, because there are things that should be family, church and community matters because people are more likely to learn and respond when challenged and corrected by their peers than when the remote power of The Law gets involved.

Fourth, because as I have suggested above, there is one better placed to judge thoughts motives and intentions and he is the one who will hold us to account.

For those reasons and not because I think you should be free to say what you want, we should continue to value freedom of speech.