This morning, a close friend of mine asked me these questions:
What do you think about free speech? What should be illegal, if anything?
He also asked if I've done any writing on the topic already. I have not, but I think this is a great topic for a blog post, so I thought I'd one with my response to his questions.
I think there are two fundamentally different questions that can be asked regarding free speech. There is the question of the basic human right—or lack thereof—to speech, and then there is the government's regulation of that right. I'll address them in that order.
First of all, I do think the freedom of speech should be an unalienable human right. Maybe that's just because I'm a citizen of the United States and that's one of the values I've been raised with, but I think, in general, when we try to silence people, that is a bad thing. It seems reasonable to conclude that if anyone is allowed to say anything, then everyone should be allowed to say something. We should have the freedom—as in the ability and the means—to say anything we want.
However, freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Just because I am allowed to say anything does not mean that I am free from the moral or social consequences of what I say. I ought not say many things because they are morally questionable or have deceitful intent. As a variation on the popular saying goes, with great freedom comes great responsibility. Freedom of speech is a great thing, but we should exercise that right with caution.
So, should we have freedom of speech? Yes, absolutely. I think freedom of speech is a wonderful thing and should not be diminished in any way. Does this mean that we have the right to say whatever we want? Indeed it does. Who am I to use my intrinsic right to speech to tell someone that they must not use theirs? However, does this mean that we should say whatever we want? Absolutely not. There are many things that should not be said, and when these things are said, it seems appropriate that some sort of apprehension should occur. In other words, there should be consequences for some kinds of speech.
So what sorts of things ought we not say? This is a tougher question than it appears. Many say that your freedom of speech ends as soon as it infringes on the rights of others, but it is not so simple. While I would agree with this sentiment in some specific cases, it is way too basic a statement to apply to every situation. The problem is that everyone has a different answer to the question of what is acceptable and what is not. A belief that I hold fast to may be considered absolutely vile to someone else, and so that person would say that the expression of my sincere belief should be prohibited. Likewise, there are many beliefs that people hold to that I am repulsed by. I personally believe these things should not be said. But that doesn't mean I want to stop someone from saying them, and I think that's the difference for a lot of people.
A lot of people think that, because they don't like something, it should be prohibited from being spoken. I am of the opinion, however, that you may speak whatever you want, as long as you realize that does not exempt you from having to deal with my response, particularly if my response is not one of affirmation. Now, even in this case, my response should be of a certain type. It should not be to insult you as a person. Insults and personal attacks are sorts of thing I ought not say. I should not call you stupid or ignorant. But I should be able to tell you that I think you're wrong, and provide a thorough and compelling argument against you as to why, and you should deal with that as the result of something you say. This, of course, goes both ways. If I say something that you do not agree with, I should expect some sort of negative response in return; while I am free to speak anything I choose, I am not free to refuse to listen to what you speak in response.
I think this mentality does a good enough job at affording me the rights that I myself believe I am entitled to, while not denying those rights to someone else. Where this gets tricky, though, for a lot of people, is on the topic of religion, particularly evangelical Christianity in this part of the world. A lot of people have a problem with evangelism, preferring instead to call it proselytism, which carries a more negative connotation. I understand full well why people hold this view. There are a lot of Christians that do a horrible job at evangelism, and so people are repelled by their behavior, wishing to silence them because they're being so obnoxious. Unfortunately, a lot of Christians have it wrong in this regard.
If I may detour for just a moment, I think evangelism in the truest sense of the word is best described as one hungry person telling another hungry person how to find bread. The good news of Christianity, the gospel, is not something that belongs only to one group of people whose job it is to force it on everyone else. I think a lot of so-called Christians see it that way, but that's really not it at all. Christians ought not share the gospel out of duty or obligation, but because it simply is what it is. It is the greatest news of all. It is the solution to all that ails humanity. It is, simply, something that those who have found it should want to share because it has impacted them so profoundly, and because they want to share it, do so in a loving and respectful manner so that those with whom they are sharing can also be profoundly impacted. The act of sharing the gospel—of true Christian evangelism—is analogous to the act of a person who is dying of starvation pleading to another in the same state, saying "look, I know where to find food, listen to what I found."
To bring this back to the topic at hand, I think that exchange is absolutely one that should be allowed to take place; the gospel of Christianity is not something that should be limited or prohibited, and the sharing of it is not to be seen as infringing on the rights of others. I am saddened, though, when I see Christians messing it up and actually pushing people away to the point that they would actually prefer to starve, so to speak.
This does mean that you may refuse to hear it if you wish. You may absolutely tell me that my beliefs are wrong, and you may tell my why you feel that way. You may not call me dumb or tell me that I am all that is wrong with society—even if you really think that—because you would not like it so much if I did the same, but you may make a compelling argument and choose to engage in productive dialog with me. This does not mean that you may silence my view and tell me that I should not believe it. You can make the case, but you must remain content even if you can't convince me, not trying to shut me up. Again, this mentality goes both ways. I ought not prohibit anyone from stating plainly views that are contrary to my own. But that does not mean I must let them get away with it, I have every right to challenge views I disagree with, as long as I provide that right to others as well.
At the end of the day, the entire issue of free speech for me is probably reduced down to equal treatment. I want to be treated a certain way, and so I want to treat others that way. I don't want to hold others to a standard I myself am not willing to meet.
With all that in mind, I think I can begin to address the freedom of speech as it pertains to government. You might think that, being fairly conservative, I must think that United States should be a theocracy, or a Christian state. If I believed this, I would be making the same mistake that the Republican party as it exists today is currently making. The fact of the matter is that our government is not a theocracy or even a Christian state, and the primary goal of Christians is not to rule over everybody else. Jesus taught that we are to in all ways submit to the government, except when that submission interferes with our faith. In the context of paying taxes and following other civil regulations, the Bible says this:
Then saith he [Jesus] unto them, Render therefore unto Ceasar the things which are Ceasar's; and unto God the things that are God's.
— Matthew 22:21 (KJV)
Would I go as far as to say that Christians do not belong in government? No, I would not. I do think true Christians can excel in government, just like they can in the medical field, in the sciences, and in any other profession. However, I am also not saying that Christians shouldn't use their profession, even if it's a politician, to evangelize. That right should be granted to us just as it is to everyone else. I just want to make it clear that most of what we see in politics today with people that claim to be Christians is not evangelism. There is a big difference between conservatism in the United States, and the Christianity of the Bible; it is a shame that the vast majority of Christians do not read the text whose rules they seek to ascribe to others.
So what, if anything, should be illegal when it comes to free speech? I tend to be of the opinion that threats of violence against another person should probably be illegal because they are very immoral and potentially put people in danger, but short of that, I don't know that any speech in and of itself should illegal in the sense that you'd be tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison time just for saying something. Now, I'm not saying there should be no consequences for speech; there does exist a limit to free speech, but in the cases where no lives are in immediate danger, the consequences are best left to public opinion, not the state. I very much want the government to stay out of my life, and that certainly extends to the area of speech. It is not the government's business to regulate what I can and cannot say, for the reasons I discussed above. The government should, in my opinion, serve the people, not vice versa. Our nation was founded on the principle that government should be limited; it should provide national and individual security and maintain infrastructure. Everything beyond those things, I feel, is the government is overstepping its rightful bounds.
There is another component of free speech that should be mentioned as well, and that is speech on the internet. People like to compare the internet to a public square, stating that since it is public space, there can be no regulations beyond what the government says is illegal. However, the internet is not a public square. Social media platforms are run by private companies, and when you create an account on those companies' servers, you are binding yourself to their terms and conditions. Often, you'll find that, should you actually read their terms and conditions, as soon as you post something to social media, you waive all rights to it; it becomes the company's property. It is therefore appropriate that said company may want to remove content if it does not align with the company's views, since that content is that company's property. In this way, freedom of speech does not exist on social media, if for no other reason than the fact that you waive your rights to it when you create an account.
You may find this contradictory to my beliefs on government, but the difference is that the government actually is—or rather, should be—a public square. Social media exists in the private sector, so those that control it have every right to remove content they find questionable. If I were in a position of control over a social media network, there are a lot of things I would not want to happen on that network, so I'd like to reserve that right for myself. I would be a hypocrite if I did not offer that right to those that actually are, even if they should use it to suppress my views. If you don't like the way a social media network is run, simply don't use it. There are plenty of options, many of which are far more decentralized and far less controlled than the mainstream social media networks. You can also run your own website and have your own blog if you want. The internet is still free; whether or not it will remain so might be in question, but you can still register your own domain and do literally whatever you want with it as far as free speech is concerned.
I wrote a blog post titled On Social Media back in April that discusses social media a bit more in depth. That post remains an accurate representation of my views on the topic, but it is not my finest work; I regret that the language I used is more harsh than what I now find personally acceptable.
© 2019-2023 Jordan Bancino.