Freedom of speech and Christian faith

March 30th, 2016

Political rally protests

A presidential-election cycle that had already been characterized as unpredictable took another twist on Friday, March 11. Protesters in Chicago caused the cancellation of a rally for candidate Donald J. Trump. The protestors and attendees clashed, and in the interest of safety, Trump canceled the rally. Trump later said that he “just didn’t want to see people hurt.”

The candidate claimed that the protests violated his freedom of speech and that of his supporters. “Whatever happened to freedom of speech?” he asked during an interview on MSNBC. Indeed, issues of speech have been prominent in the campaign. Some have said that Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign has been the reason why protests have emerged, and some have said that his comments during rallies have fanned the flames of violence.

During one rally, Trump said about a heckler as he was being escorted out, “I’d like to punch him in the face.” A supporter did this very thing at a rally in North Carolina. The sheriff in the county where the rally was held commented that he would be investigating whether to charge Trump with inciting a riot.

The right to free speech

Freedom of speech is enshrined as a basic right in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. News reports from other countries detailing the actions of repressive governments to stifle speech are reminders of the importance of this right. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published a list of the “10 Most Censored Countries” in 2006. North Korea tops the list. The CPJ says that North Korea has “no independent journalists, and all radio and television receivers sold in the country are locked to government-specified frequencies.” 

Even as we recognize the importance of free speech and are grateful to live in a country where speech is protected, the topic of limits to free speech is often debated. How far does the freedom to say what one wants extend? Perhaps the most famous example cited on the limits of free speech was written by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in which he gave his opinion that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” This statement is often thought of as a simple example of how freedom of speech doesn’t extend to those who would incite violence or panic.

Interestingly, Trevor Timm, author of a 2012 essay in The Atlantic, points out that Holmes’s quote was part of a Supreme Court decision that allowed for the government to censor dissenters during World War I. The defendant in the case, Charles Schenck, wrote a pamphlet criticizing the use of the draft. It simply called for a petition against the act that allowed for the draft to be used, seemingly a far cry from the damage that the “fire in a crowded theater” example alludes to. The court’s decision, however, sent Schenck to prison. The Supreme Court essentially overturned the decision in 1969 when it ruled that inflammatory speech is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

In other words, unless your speech actually intends to incite violence, it’s protected; and even then it may still be protected if it’s unlikely to cause violence to occur. Incidentally, this ruling and the limits on free speech it defines are why the description of Trump’s speech is unlikely to lead to charges. “Nothing I’ve seen meets the very stringent restrictive definition for what amounts to incitement that is not protected by the First Amendment,” Lee Rowland, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union said in an article for PBS.

Timm sees a limited role for the government in determining what counts as free speech. He writes that Oliver Wendell Holmes also grew concerned over the precedent the decision against Charles Schenck set, and in a later Supreme Court decision, Holmes wrote an opinion that presented the “free trade in ideas” as the best test of offensive speech. “The best test of truth,” he wrote, “is in the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” A thought that is offensive will be repudiated in the “market” and will fizzle out by a lack of support. 

The church and free speech

Such an understanding of free speech seems particularly suited for a church that relies on an exchange of ideas to spread its message. In Acts 17:16-34, Paul addresses a crowd in Athens. He points out the many idols he found in the city, particularly one with the inscription “to an unknown God.” Paul seized on this inscription to present the gospel message. “What you worship as unknown,” Paul says, “I now proclaim to you.” The response to his presentation was mixed: “Some began to ridicule Paul. ... Others said, ‘We’ll hear from you about this again.’ ”

This type of exchange, a utilization of the freedom of speech to proclaim the gospel message, is crucial for the Christian church to accomplish its mission. When it has been in a position of power, however, the church hasn’t always protected the right of free speech. In 1231, the Inquisition began as a means of putting heretics on trial. The result of these trials, if the person wouldn’t repudiate what he or she said, often led to such punishments as burning at the stake. In order to further combat heretical teaching reaching faithful Christians, a list of “forbidden books” was drawn up in 1559. It wasn’t until 1966 that the Index of Forbidden Books was suppressed by the Catholic Church.

To be fair, the Roman Catholic Church has defended the right to free speech. In his 1963 document “Peace on Earth,” Pope John XXIII wrote that people “[have] a right to freedom in investigating the truth, and — within the limits of the moral order and the common good — to freedom of speech and publication.”

The World Council of Churches, in its inaugural document “Declaration of Religious Liberty,” advocated for the freedom of expression, especially in expressing one’s faith, and the “freedom to express implications of belief for society and government.” This statement is reminiscent of Paul’s exhortation to speak the “truth with love” in Ephesians 4:15.

Paul’s words provide a good summation of contemporary Christian teaching about the freedom of speech. The right to free speech is fundamental to human dignity. The most appropriate check on that speech is love. If love is the beginning and the end result of our speech, then the market of ideas will not turn it away.

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