Is free speech worth the cost? It has long been considered one of the fundamental rights on which our country was founded and a liberty to be prized above most others. According to a new report by PEN America, however, there is a growing sentiment among young people that, despite its lofty stature in our culture, free speech often functions simply as an idealized excuse to be cruel. The disconnect between the most ardent defenders of that freedom and the young people described in the study appears to come down to a difference in priorities. Those who prize free speech are often wary of any limitations on the exercise of that right while young people often place an increasing importance on the protection of individuals from damaging or judgmental statements.
Taken to the extreme, both views seem to favor a distorted understanding of what free speech was meant to be, yet those extremes are often where the debate takes place. As with many issues in our culture, the middle ground has largely disappeared from the conversation. PEN America is hoping to bring it back, though, by fostering dialogue with those on both sides of the divide.
That dialogue is further complicated, however, by the nebulous terms with which supporters of each extreme often describe what they want. For example, as Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times reports, the PEN study comes on the heels of a recent Gallup poll from earlier this year that found “college students were overwhelmingly in favor of free expression on campus in general but also significantly in favor of some restrictions on ‘intentionally offensive’ speech.”
While those restrictions sound reasonable, it is all but impossible to find a definition of “intentionally offensive” speech about which everyone can agree. That inability to find a common understanding of where the line exists between speech that is offensive and that which should be permitted has led to the recent problems over anti-Semitic comments at UCLA and appropriate Halloween costumes at Yale University, to name two of the more prominent examples.
As French writer and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville remarked, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” I don’t believe that this problem can be solved in our culture, as doing so would require a set of standards on which all could agree. That’s simply not possible when such criteria are founded upon popular opinion. For the Christian, however, that foundation is clear.
In the book of James, we find the warning that the tongue has the capacity to destroy unless checked by a heart yielded to the Lord (James 3:5-12). The standards set down by our heavenly Father call for us to speak to others as we would want to be spoken to (Matthew 7:12). An important part of that is taking their perceptions and beliefs into account when determining what to say and, just as importantly, how to say it.
With the Holy Spirit’s help, we are capable of demonstrating that level of restraint in the exercise of our right to free speech every time we communicate with another person. And while our culture may not consistently or actively seek God’s counsel on this issue, they are searching for an answer that only he can provide. How great would it be if others saw in us the balance they desire?
If, however, our words convey only hate and judgment without the slightest hint of love and compassion, they will have little reason to seek the God we profess to follow. As disciples of Christ, we are called to demonstrate that free speech is worth the cost, but that it’s a cost paid by our decision to willfully set aside our right to say whatever we want in order to convey only that which the Lord has determined our world needs to hear.
The unrestrained exercise of freedom can enslave a person to its whims just as easily as if the choice was never theirs to make. Are you a slave to your freedoms today or have you found the freedom that can only come in willful service to the Father? Every word you speak will answer that question. Choose them wisely.