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Why defend free speech?

Why should Christians defend the freedom for others to say and write things we wouldn’t?


Some years ago, an American diplomat was having a drink with his Russian counterpart in Moscow, capital of the Soviet Union. He was trying to explain to the communist what free speech means.

“In America, any citizen can just stroll around downtown Washington with a sign that says ‘Down with President Reagan’ and not get arrested. That’s what it means to have freedom of speech.”

“So what?” his Russian friend replied. “I can do the very same thing and not get in any trouble – I could march right into the Kremlin, right into Secretary Gorbachev’s office and yell ‘Down with Reagan’ and I wouldn’t get arrested.”


This was one of many jokes President Reagan loved to tell to contrast Western freedom with Soviet repression. And the joke hints at an important litmus test for free speech, which is whether you are free to criticize your own government, laws, and society – in private or public.

The humble should want to be second-guessed (Prov. 18:17)

But why should a society, particularly a democratic one like Canada, allow its prevailing norms, beliefs, or behaviors to be questioned and criticized?

Because, we believe societies and governments – like any fallible person or group of persons – can be wrong. They often are. Truth exists. And truth trumps majority opinion, personal feelings, and political power. On that score, there are many examples of men speaking truth to those in positions of political power. They are recorded for us in the Bible and through Church history.

You might think of Nathan calling out David for his adultery with Bathsheba. Or you might think of how Samuel and Jonathan speak the truth to King Saul.

The proud make speech costly

Many other prophets dared to speak the truth to other kings of Israel and Judah. Jesus condemned Jewish authorities for killing these prophets. In Matthew 23, Jesus even points to a specific example recorded in Scripture, namely that of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24:20:

“Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest. He stood before the people and said, “This is what God says: ‘Why do you disobey the Lord’s commands? You will not prosper. Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has forsaken you.’” But they plotted against him, and by order of the king [Joash], they stoned him to death in the courtyard of the Lord’s temple.”

Or, consider the example of the Apostle Paul. In Acts 17 we read about how Paul went about his work. In the first part of Acts 17 he’s in Thessalonica. We read:

“And Paul, as was his custom, went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,” he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul.”

Let’s contrast that with the conduct of those who don’t like what Paul is saying:

“[Others] formed a mob and started a riot in the city […] [and] they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’”

These guys seem pretty politically savvy. Whip up a mob. Cause a riot. Blame your opponents’ message for your behavior. Get officials to silence them.

The wise will challenge speech

Then Paul goes on to Berea, where we read that the Jews were “noble” and that they “eagerly examined the Scriptures to see if Paul’s teachings were true.” Then we go on to read about Paul in Athens later in the chapter:

“[Paul] reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. And a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. […] And they took Paul and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean” (Acts 17:17-20).”

The response to Paul by those interested in the truth is to investigate, discuss, and debate. The response of those interested in preserving their power rather than pursuing truth is to silence Paul by force. But the truth of Christ is more powerful than the force of rulers.

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul uses a military metaphor to explain gospel ministry:

“Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, our weapons have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

Demolishing strongholds and taking captives – not with the sword, but the truth of God’s Word. Now, of course, Paul and the Apostles spoke the truth, as we must, regardless of whether the law protects our freedom to do so. It is good to defend the freedom to share the truth. Paul defended himself using his rights as a citizen, for example, with the goal of bearing witness to Christ.

God hates compelled speech

Other early Christians advocated for freedom to preach and practice the gospel, arguing that religion is a matter of the heart and cannot be coerced.

In A.D. 197, Tertullian wrote his Apology as a defense of persecuted Christians. He addressed it to the Roman authorities. Tertullian says it is “a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions.” Coercion in religion, he argues, only fosters irreligion and hypocrisy. Tertullian contends that “heretics and philosophers study the same themes as believers: what is the origin of evil, and why? The origin of humans, and why?” He also appeals to the image of God in man, with an emphasis on man’s reasoning and decision-making capacity.

God has used speech

The ability to disseminate views increased dramatically with the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-1400s. It made books and pamphlet printing far faster and cheaper, making written materials widely accessible. A few decades later, the Catholic Church did not like much of what it saw coming off the press, so in 1487 the Pope issued a papal bull calling for regulation of the press. That did not accomplish much. So, the next Pope – Leo X – issued a stronger papal bull in 1515 forbidding publishing without prior authorization from the Church.

Leo X did so just in time for Luther. By 1521, the Pope’s envoy in Germany wrote to the Pope to bemoan the “daily downpour of Lutheran tracts in German and Latin. Nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther.” Luther called the printing press “God’s highest and extremest act of grace whereby the gospel is driven forward.” The data backs Luther up. The Reformation spread faster in towns that had printing presses. And in turn literacy grew fastest in places where the Reformation took hold, as it did firmly in the Netherlands. Between 1600 and 1800 no one read or printed more than the Dutch. Their literacy and rate of literary consumption by the late 1600s quadrupled that of France or Italy.

Speech can be misused        

Now there’s also no denying that the printing press and the explosion of religious pamphlets allowed some strange flowers to bloom. Radical Anabaptists had very odd and heretical teachings and were early victims of persecution. Luther said of this persecution, “I am deeply troubled that the poor Anabaptists are pitifully put to death. Let everyone believe what he likes. If he is wrong he will have punishment enough in hell. Unless there is sedition, one should oppose the Anabaptists with God’s Word.”

Luther was not always consistent with this principle. He supported censorship of certain Anabaptist writings as well as Zwinglian pamphlets. Calvinists exercised censorship too – for example, when the Presbyterians controlled the Parliament of 17th century England and forbade publishing books or tracts without prior license from Parliament. But the Presbyterians were opposed by various Puritans including an important Reformed political thinker named John Milton. You may know him as the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost, but he was also a very important political thinker and advocate.

John Milton, on iron sharpening iron

In 1644, during the first English Civil War between Parliament and the Crown, John Milton published an unlicensed pamphlet attacking an Order of Parliament from the year before that prohibited publishing anything unless it had first received a license from the censors appointed by Parliament. Milton titled his great free speech pamphlet Areopagitica – in reference to the Areopagus in Athens and likely to Paul’s visit there recorded in Acts 17. Milton’s unlicensed pamphlet would prove very influential in later English and American and Canadian history. So let’s follow its argument.

Milton was concerned about how we, as human beings made in God’s image, promote the truth. Option number one is through reading widely, considering different opinions, and thinking critically. Iron sharpens iron, as the proverb goes. Option one has an optimistic view of the truth, that the Truth with a capital T will ultimately triumph. The only way this can happen, though, is if citizens have the freedom of expression needed to discover the truth by considering God’s revelation for themselves.

But Milton anticipated a common objection: won’t the freedom of expression allow bad ideas to spread? That leads us to option number two to promote the truth: through force. Underlying this second belief is the presumption that the Truth will lose out, unless we force others to adopt it. In their eyes, truth will ultimately lose in a fair fight. The only way to maintain the truth – if they even believe in objective truth – is to allow some people to decide what truth is and enforce it upon everyone else.

So those who wish to restrict the freedom of expression have little confidence in the power of the Truth. Or, alternatively, they might even think Truth is powerful, but they hate it and wish to supress it.

Milton uses the example of the Bible. If you want to stomp out heresy and inappropriate content, then you might consider banning the Bible too. We all know churches or people who have twisted the Bible to promote their own opinions. The Bible also has graphic descriptions of sin (ex. the final chapters of Judges) and even suggestive descriptions of goodness (ex. the Song of Solomon). That’s why the Roman Catholic Church did not allow the Bible to be printed in the common language: because they did not trust common people to interpret it.

But truth doesn’t come from the Pope or from the King. It is found in God’s revelation of Himself, a revelation that He has given to all mankind.

Some speech needs to be policed

Now, just because we believe in freedom of expression doesn’t mean that the government may never regulate any type speech. The Bible speaks of many sins of the tongue. The government does have a role in regulating some speech, such as outlawing perjury, which is bearing false witness in court. Some forms of speech constitute injustices against others in themselves, such as libel, threats, or fraud.

But it is not the responsibility of the government to police all the sins of the tongue. Some of these judgements are reserved for other spheres of authority: elders in the church combat heresy, parents in the home police unkind words, bosses in the workplace punish false advertising, and even individuals in their own minds need to guard against ungodly thoughts.

…but the bigger problem is truth being restricted

However, the problem today isn’t so much that governments in Canada are trying to combat sins of the tongue that are outside of its responsibility. Instead, the main problem today is that they are more and more punishing speech that proclaims the truth and is glorifying to God or, relatedly, speech that challenges the prevailing ideologies and idols of our day.

We can think of Canada’s conversion therapy ban, which makes it illegal to promote a biblical view of gender and sexuality in some settings. We have bubble zone laws that prevent pro-lifers from talking about abortion in any way around hospitals and abortion clinics in some provinces. One Ontario MPP proposed another type of bubble zone that outlaws the proclamation of God’s design for human gender and sexuality in certain areas. A growing number of municipalities and, again, another Ontario MPP are proposing to ban pro-life literature.

This onslaught against free speech is what Christians need to stand up to. We may very well disagree with the manner that it is presented in. Perhaps such speech was spoken in anger or with inappropriate exaggeration. We might even disagree with the truth of the speech itself. We might think that what our neighbor is saying runs contrary to some biblical principles. But if we neglect to defend free speech, we are essentially saying that we don’t think that the Truth will triumph but that lies will always overcome the Truth unless put down by the force of law.

But we have every confidence that the Truth will prevail. So let us defend the right of our neighbors to speak what they think is true so that every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel may be removed for us as well.

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Human Rights

A Christian perspective on freedom of speech

This was first published in the June 2010 issue To say American author and columnist Ann Coulter is “outspoken” is rather like saying Solomon was  “a smart fellow.” Both statements are correct, in so far as they go, but they really don’t go far enough. Ann Coulter can, in a single sentence, be brilliantly insightful and insulting, and that – along with out-of-context quotes broadcast in five-second clips on the nightly news – has made her controversial. So when she was scheduled to speak March 23, 2010 at the University of Ottawa it was predictable that there would be protests. What wasn’t predictable was the escalation of hype and hysteria that caused the speech to be canceled. The hype was started by a letter written the previous week from the University of Ottawa’s provost, Francois Houle. He warned Coulter that she should be careful what she was going to say, or else run the risk of criminal charges. On the evening of the 23rd a mob of two thousand students surrounded the speaking venue, preventing many from entering. Those that did get in were subjected to screams from a handful of students who also made it inside. “There were five of us in there. We were loud,” one of the students told Global TV, “It was amazing that five of us could shut it, could just have them stop speaking.” Another admitted that, “Yes that was our aim, to stop Ann Coulter from speaking.” Outside students banged on the doors while others screamed: “This is what democracy sounds like! This is what democracy looks like!” Forty minutes after the speech was scheduled to start it was canceled over safety concerns. There were three ironies evident that night. The first, that this happened in a country that prides itself on being polite and peace-loving. To that point Coulter had done more than 100 speeches on college campuses in the US and never before been prevented from speaking by an angry mob. That only happened in Canada. Freedom to hear Then there was the painful irony of many in the censorious mob insisting they were only exercising their “freedom of speech.” They misunderstood it as a freedom to screech, as if they had the right to shout down anyone they disagreed with. But of course, freedom of speech means very little if it doesn’t also include a freedom to hear – screaming at the top of your lungs just to make sure others can’t be heard is not a form of free speech, but censorship. Here is where the media failed us – reporters did ask the mob’s leaders why they thought they had the right to stop Coulter from speaking but the students were never asked why they thought they could stop so many others from hearing. It should have been made clear that this presumptive bunch wasn’t just stepping on one woman’s freedom to speak but rather on the freedom of hundreds to hear her. That line of questioning would have made clear the astonishing arrogance of the mob; this was a group of twenty-something-year-old students telling people old enough to be their parents, grandparents, employers and professors that no, you might want to hear this woman, but we’ve decided we know better than you what you should hear. This line of questioning would have made it clear how condescending, how disrespectful, how elitist this group of self-appointed censors was being. But sadly reporters never brought up the crowd’s “freedom to hear.” Legitimate limitations The evening’s final irony was that the mob’s victims also seemed to be confused as to what free speech entails. One older woman interviewed by Global TV talked about Ann Coulter’s “right to freedom of speech” as if it were an absolute right, as if it didn’t matter what Coulter said, she should still have the right to say it. But we know that isn’t so. There are legitimate limits to free speech. The most famous example is that you shouldn't be allowed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater (unless there is a fire). Other legitimate restrictions include a ban on slander, libel, false advertising, and passing on state or military secrets. One student leader said Coulter had to be silenced because her speech would violate  “safe spaces for students.” It was a baseless accusation (it’s her opponents, not her supporters, who cause riots) but if Coulter really did incite violence that would have been a good reason to restrict her speech. However, while there are reasons to restrict speech, even in those instances it is the properly appointed authorities who have the right to do the restricting…not an angry mob. Christian basis Coulter’s visit to the capital revealed how confused people are about free speech. Both sides said they believed in it, but one side would only grant the freedom to people of whom they approved, while the other side seemed to be arguing for speech without restrictions – it was the censors versus the anarchists. But if the world is confused about free speech, Christians needn't be. We support free speech for two simple reasons. 1) Free speech helps us seek the Truth The reason free speech matters is because Truth matters. And if we are going to seek after the Truth we need to be able to talk freely. If we're going to find Truth, verify it, hold on to it and share it with others, we may just need to say all sorts of wrong, crazy, incorrect and offensive things. How is a Muslim ever going to learn the Truth if he can't first explain his incorrect understanding of Jesus? How can we preach to and debate with the atheist if he can't publicly and freely express his doubts about God's existence? Though Thomas was wrong to doubt (John 20:24-31), how could his doubts have been answered if he wasn't allowed to question whether Christ rose? And how foolish would the Bereans (Acts 17) have been if they turned Paul away without hearing him? Instead they risked hearing something offensive so they could test Paul's words against the Word, and find out if he spoke the Truth. We support free speech because it is by talking, discussing, preaching, and teaching freely that the Truth is known. 2) Censorship is most often used to oppose the Truth Lord Acton's dictum that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" is grounded in both Scripture and history. Scripture teaches us that Man is depraved and on his own cannot resist temptation (and absolute power is quite the temptation!) while history teaches us again and again that dictators are indeed corrupted by their power. So Christians know better than to trust any king, president, prime minister, bureaucrat, panel, tribunal or judge with the awesome power of being able to decide for everyone else everything that we can and cannot read, see or hear. We can't trust that sort of near-absolute power to anyone. We learn from Scripture that we would be incredibly naive to believe we can entrust a man with such enormous power, and we learn from history that whenever broad-ranging censorship power is given, it is abused and used to suppress the Truth. The Bible, after all, remains the world's most censored book. Conclusion As Christians we know that any freedom Man is given will be misused and abused so it is certain that on some occasions people’s speech will need to be stopped. But that isn’t a path we are going to want to go down too often because we know free speech aids in the spread of the Truth. Not everyone is so tolerant, as the incident in Ottawa shows. So let’s make use now of the freedoms we still have to speak freely about God to our neighbors, our coworkers… and maybe even to a university student or two. Picture by Christopher Halloran /