Freedom Of Speech


Benjamin_Franklin_freedom_of_speech_quoteFreedom of speech has become increasingly complicated. For one thing, the US Supreme Court ruled back in the mid-1900s that “speech” included things like burning the American flag. In other words, acts of protest were repositioned as speech.

Hence, the people here in SoCal protesting the August 2014 shooting in Ferguson had freedom of “speech” to block traffic by walking down the middle of some streets. Not freeways, though. Their freedom of “speech” had some limits.

A few weeks ago, freedom of speech was front and center because of the supposed North Korean threats to Sony and movie theaters that would release The Interview. This film purportedly was about two reporters who were recruited to assassinate North Korea’s leader.

It strikes me now that The Interview joked about doing what the Islamic terrorists actually did in France. Be that as it may, actors and directors and pretty much anyone in Hollywood were up in arms about the “censorship” North Korea was trying to impose on the US movie industry.

Of course those cries would be far different if the film depicted North Koreans coming to the US to assassinate President Obama. I suspect Homeland Security would have been heavily involved in squashing such a project—which probably would not have been called censorship.

Most recently, of course, has been the horrific murder of the French cartoonists/satirists which has stirred great support for freedom of speech. These individuals had the right to say what they wanted, no matter how vile. Here’s one characterization of their work:

you are underestimating the vulgarity of Charlie Hebdo. It goes beyond “offensive and immature”, the cartoons you describe are only the shallow end of the cesspool that is this publication. I grew up in France, I love the country and it’s people, and while I would defend to the death their right to do what they choose to do, I would never go as far as saying “I am Charlie”. Even for solidarity purposes. They are vile, divisive and go out of their way to insult matters of faith in ways that are just simply sick and deranged. (JMerkh’s comment to Chip MacGregor’s blog post “Je Suis Charlie”)

This latest wrinkle in the freedom of speech issue, then, has to do with whether offensive speech should still be free.

While we claim here in the US that the French satirists had the write to spoof and mock to their vile, insulting content, we don’t practice that same kind of free speech. If in doubt, think back to Donald Sterling who spoke in the privacy of his own home in a way that offended others and suffered the consequences for it.

University of California campuses and others across the country are famous for banning speech that is deemed offensive. Speakers have been dis-invited, funding has been cut off, student papers have been shut down.

NYTimes columnist David Brooks elaborated on this point in his article “I Am Not Charlie Hedbo”:

Public reaction to the attack in Paris has revealed that there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.

One example of this fact is the recent firing of the Atlanta fire chief Kevin Cochran. Cochran’s crime? He published a book that carried a few lines strongly condemning homosexuality, along with other sexual sins. First the mayor suspended Cochran and required him to take sensitivity training. At the end of his suspension, however, he was fired.

The mayor explained the decision:

I appreciate Chief Cochran’s service as fire chief. His personal religious beliefs are not an issue at all, despite the number of comments and emails I have been receiving on a daily basis. The city and my administration stand firmly in support of the right of religious freedom, freedom of speech and the right to freely observe their faith.” (“The Mayor of Atlanta Declares War on Religious Freedom”; for more information, see the Atlanta Sun Times)

George_Washington_freedom_of_speech_quoteSo the mayor affirms his belief in freedom of speech and yet fired Cochran for what he said.

I’ll say again: freedom of speech has become increasingly complicated. We’ve allowed public figures to be maligned in the name of free speech and pornography to run rampant under the same banner.

But the fire chief can’t say homosexuality is sin.

In fact in the US we’ve created a forbidden category called “hate speech” which apparently trumps the US Constitution’s protection of speech. Hate speech, you see, is not allowed.

And who determines what hate speech is?

Another of the free speech complications I mentioned.

Of course, if people didn’t malign others or say vile things about a particular religion or people group, then this topic would be moot. Free speech could be free because people regulated their own speech by determining if it is offensive and harmful to others. At the same time, groups and individuals could be a bit more forbearing rather than thin-skinned when someone directs criticism their way.

Are there really no ways of satirizing without being “sick and deranged”? Can we no longer state our religious beliefs without someone becoming offended?

The problem is clearly on both ends—speakers who have no filters for what comes out of their mouths, and hearers who assume an insult at the slightest hint of disagreement.

We’ve come a long way from the adage I was taught as a child: if you can’t say something nice, don’t talk at all is my advice.

Critique—which is the point of satire—doesn’t fall into the category of “nice,” but neither does it have to be offensive.

I wonder if there’s any hope that civilized people can once again discuss issues without rancor and name calling. It seems as if “to express an opinion” means “to offend others who see things differently.”

That certainly seems to be what the mayor of Atlanta thought.

I think we need two changes: 1) a renewal of free speech as opposed to a demand for politically correct speech and 2) a recommitment to civil discourse instead of slinging insults and engaging in vile and deranged satire.

Christians And Politics


When I was teaching, I used to feel somewhat resentful that teachers were not allowed to voice their opinion in their classroom about things like whether or not they believed in God or if they opposed same-sex marriage and the like. Granted, I taught in a Christian school, so I did have the privilege of saying what I believed, though I’m sure that’s because my beliefs aligned with my school’s.

But seriously, I thought, this is America where we have the Bill of Rights, with the protection of both free speech and freedom of religion, right there in the first amendment, and teachers can’t stand before their classes and say, I believe in God?

Slowly that restriction on a person’s freedom to express an opinion seems to be spreading, to the point that just recently a Christian agent felt compelled to apologize for stating political opinions in the articles he wrote for his agency blog. I suppose if there was some confusion that his opinions represented those of the organization, then there might be justification in refraining from making a statement about his beliefs, but I can’t help wondering where this trend will end.

I mean, those lining up at Chick-Fil-A this summer were accused of hate speech. And I’ve been in a discussion on line at a public forum in which someone says Christians have no business voicing their opinion on public policy if their religion informed their beliefs. That’s crossing the line between church and state, this person claimed.

Really?

Christians are now to be seen and not heard, even when talking primarily to other Christians, all for the fear of offending someone? I have to admit, I’m astounded by this and equally dismayed.

On the other hand, I don’t think Christians should be offensive in the way we talk to or about other people.

There’s a way to speak that is demeaning by its sarcasm or condescension and I don’t think Christians should speak that way–not because I don’t like it, but because Scripture calls us to speak with grace so that we will know how we should respond to each person (See Colossians 4:6). We’re supposed to honor all people (1 Peter 2:17), love others, and not be a stumbling block that causes someone to turn from the gospel.

However, it’s a mistake to think we should correct our way of speaking by holding our tongue altogether. What will set us apart from the world is not our closed mouths. It’s our willingness to say what we believe in a manner that puts our content front and center rather than our expression of it.

Take Clint Eastwood, for example. Many people talked about his “speech” (clearly it was a piece of theater, an ad libbed monologue) at the Republican National Convention. Those who disagreed with it found it bizarre; those who agreed found it clever. Not very many people talked about the ideas he expressed.

The Democrats worried about Bill Clinton in the same way. Would his powerful rhetoric overshadow President Obama?

In other words, in our day and age perhaps more than in any other, style has become the first measure of public discourse. Christians, then, should pay attention to how we say what we believe. And we should keep on speaking, because we live in a country that allows us to do so.

Published in: on September 6, 2012 at 6:40 pm  Comments (2)  
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