Of all the ethical issues we will face in the UK in 2021, what matters most? I believe freedom of speech is the ethical issue of our times. Society’s ability to think and debate every other issue hinges on this freedom. If Jesus requires that we be faithful to the gospel and love our neighbor, we must defend free speech – both for ourselves and for those whose views we oppose. I’ll sketch a picture of our current context, then I’ll propose a theological foundation undergirding free speech.
Our cultural context
While many nations have consistently suppressed speech, it’s had significant protection in the West. However, post-9/11, anti-terror speech laws paved the way for anti-discrimination and hate speech laws. Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill criminalises a range of activities if the court thinks you mean to incite hatred, including speech in your home and possessing literature deemed hateful. The Scottish Government says it’s not intended to chill public debate. However, feminists, comedians, journalists, the Scottish Law Society, the Catholics and the Free Church all argue this concept of ‘hate’ may be misapplied to limit legitimate free speech. Other Western nations are developing similar laws.
“… He’s perfectly entitled to his beliefs, but he can’t talk about them publicly.”The Spectator
However, it’s not so much law that limits speech today as societal expectations, often upheld by corporations and social media. This year, Barclay’s Bank, GoFundMe, YouTube, Amazon and Twitter have actively limited speech. As seen with Jordan Peterson and Franklin Graham, de-platforming controversial or conservative speakers is the new normal for universities and city councils. UK workplaces increasingly limit speech. When Australian rugby player Israel Folau was fired for a tweet deemed homophobic, the Spectator noted: “Much of the commentary on the Folau incident seems to conclude that he’s perfectly entitled to his beliefs, but he can’t talk about them publicly.” It’s not all bad news; there are exceptions to this trend across politics, academia, and pop culture. Nevertheless, this is the nub of it for us as Christians: is Christianity about private values, or public truth? If it’s the latter, how do we carry that truth wisely in the public sphere? Let’s consider what Scripture says.
Theological Perspective on Free Speech
While the Bible does not speak directly about ‘free speech’, it provides a conceptual lens through which to examine today’s debates. The following overview is dense, so read slowly and digest!
The freedom for individuals to name and confront what they believe is wrong, debate issues, and speak truth to power is an essential counterweight to human depravity and an indispensable tool in the pursuit of truth and justice.
God embodies truth. We were made for God; therefore, pursuing truth in the whole of life is central to human existence. God exemplifies speaking freely despite risk of offense: the entire Bible is his message to a rebellious humanity which finds its claims offensive. God created humans in his image, giving us the God-like capabilities of rational thought and speech, and the freedom to use them. Honouring God’s image in others includes honouring these capabilities and the corresponding freedoms. Since Adam’s fall, sin mars human thinking and corrupts our use of power. The freedom for individuals to name and confront what they believe is wrong, debate issues, and speak truth to power is an essential counterweight to human depravity and an indispensable tool in the pursuit of truth and justice.
Scripture’s entire story is an exercise in free speech. The histories and gospels don’t bypass the shadow side of characters but tell their stories frankly. Prophets confront leaders’ sins. Scripture is giving us principles exemplifying the importance of free speech and a free press, by which we record history accurately and hold government accountable.
Jesus let no one dictate his message, but spoke his convictions. He urged people to test societal norms and think for themselves. He wasn’t liberal or conservative: he called people back to Scripture while challenging the status quo. He allowed any question from anyone, and never removed an apostle from office for failures in speech. In this way, he gave people the opportunity to confess their need or discover their ignorance and so to learn from him. Regardless what others said, Jesus’ response to words was words, exemplifying the truism that the right response to bad ideas is not suppression but better ideas.
“… We shouldn’t restrict liberty; we should rebuild virtue.“David French
David French said, “Absent virtue, liberty can lead to disorder. In the face of that disorder, however, we shouldn’t restrict liberty; we should rebuild virtue.” The gospel ethic of love provides a rationale for free speech and the moral resources to promote virtuous speech. Furthermore, the gospel gives the grace which enables forgiveness and restoration –something our culture rarely considers when people break speech rules.
What drives the West’s rise in speech regulation?
Today, if you speak foolishly or disagree with someone else’s moral choice, it is a reportable ‘hate incident’ or a fireable offense.
Since our post-Enlightenment society denies any revelatory word from God, human reason alone supplies our knowledge. Now most people believe that what’s ultimate are self-definition, personal autonomy and happiness. Lacking absolute realities, how I feel and what I want become my identity. You disagreeing with who I say I am (for example, transgender) is more than a disagreement; you’re assaulting my person and society’s highest value. We want a peaceful society, but many reject the peace of respectful tolerance; we require enforced ‘non-discrimination’. Speech laws are an attempt to solve conflict in such a society. Moreover, it seems as post-9/11 society accepted the possibility that speech itself can, when linked to terror, be a threat, we transferred that belief into the realm of everyday communication, disagreement, and debate. Today, if you speak foolishly or disagree with someone else’s moral choice, it is a reportable ‘hate incident’ or a fireable offense.
What does the church do in this climate?
“We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”Apostles Peter and John
I suggest we choose a posture of truth, love, and willingness to suffer. Because we serve the God of truth, speaking truth is not optional nor a right, but our duty. At every level of society and for its good, we are responsible to promote the free exchange of ideas without repercussion. Furthermore, our words must be shaped by Biblical love. For Christ, love was costly. At times the cost itself is what commends our message. Christ was crucified, in part, because he spoke truth. But in so doing, he conquered. The authorities tried silencing the apostles, but they responded, “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” Church history indicates they each suffered for this stand. Oliver O’Donovan shows how this boldness impacted the Empire: “But, confronted with the community empowered by God’s speech, force could extinguish speech only at the cost of investing it with the dignity of martyrdom. It proved impossible in the event for Roman society to refuse an answer to the word that was addressed to it with this seriousness.”
I hope this provokes you to consider and discuss the church’s role in relation to speech. I hope you are compelled to choose to exercise and defend free speech to God’s glory, by seeing our speech not as our right to assert but our duty to discharge out of love for God and the world. I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions or pushback on this article at email@example.com.
 https://www.christian.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Freetodisagree_web.pdf, accessed 17 Dec 2020
 https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/israel-folau-s-sacking-and-the-right-to-freedom-of-expression, accessed 17 Dec 2020
 I John 1:5,7; John 14:6
 For example, Isaiah 65:2
 Genesis 1:26-28
 Ephesians 4:17-18
 Proverbs 25:12; 27:17; I Kings 20-21. Cf. Howard Taylor, Human Rights, 81
 David French, “When Speech Inspires Violence, Protect Liberty While Restoring Virtue”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018] Online: https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/steve-scalise-shooting-political-violence-no-excuse-restricting-political-speech-free-speech/
 Acts 4:20
 Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 269
2 thoughts on “Free Speech: why it matters and what we must do”
Excellent post, thank you, David. And thank you, too, for ending with the bottom line, declared by Peter and John: the gospel will never be silenced!
Excellent article David, providing great clarity in this minefield!