Speak Freely

February 24, 2021 | perspective | Kevin McGill

“If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” — Noam Chomsky

The pillar of any great society is freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Not all religion is good, and not all speech is praiseworthy. But the moment we decide to censure religious or political views that are different than our own, we go down a dangerous path. Freedom of speech protects all speech. That we may not share someone else's perspective is beside the point. As American legal scholar Laurence Tribe points out, “The great virtue of the First Amendment is that it protects speech we hate just as vigorously as it protects speech we support.”[1]

Now hear me clearly: If someone chooses to use their freedom of speech to say racist, bigoted and harmful things, they need to understand there may be consequences. Their employer may choose to fire them. They may be flagged by Twitter or Facebook and not be able to continue to post hateful things. That is how the marketplace of ideas work. Private companies have every right to moderate their platform. That is not arbitrary censure; that’s consequence.

There are important limits to free speech. People who lie about others can be taken to court for either libel (if published) or slander (if spoken). If it can be demonstrated that speech has a direct correlation to violence it can and should be prosecuted. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequence.

Kids should be taught from the earliest age they cannot use their words to bully others. If they do not learn this lesson in home or in school, then they will learn that their employer has every right to fire them for abusive speech. However, it is impossible and perhaps even unwise to try to search out and stop every bully. The best antidote for bad speech is good speech. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the constitutional remedy for false speech is “more speech, not enforced silence.”

In the age of social media, good speech is often drowned out by hate speech and conspiracy theories. But we must not give up on the First Amendment and the belief that the best speech and ideas will win out. This freedom continues to be the path to a more perfect union. By protecting the speech we hate, we protect the speech we love.

Social media has opened a Pandora's box of conspiracy theories and extremism. In general, social media is not full of nuanced conversations. It is vitriolic tribalism, with the extreme comments getting the most views. When we amplify this extremism in partisan ways, the polarization increases. We should remember to tweet onto others, the way that we want to be tweeted to. It is best to moderate ourselves and to be committed to treating each other with respect within our differences.

Two things would be immediately helpful in this regard. First, we could intentionally engage the humanity of others and treat people online as if they are friends, not trolls. Secondly, we could be curious about opinions different from our own. We would do well to try to understand differing views in the best light possible. We could make space to allow people to hold different views. This is a confident and healthy pluralism. Author John Inazu makes this point: "The challenges arising out of our deep differences are not going away. But as we move toward an unknown future, we can retain some basic level of agreement about how to live with these differences. Confident pluralism offers that possibility. It will not convince everyone. It may not reshape entrenched intolerance, shallow certainty, or short sighted impatience. But it might persuade enough of us who are confident in our own beliefs and focused on preserving our modest unity amidst our pluralism."[2]

In his commentary on Revelation, Sigve Tonstad says, “The Bible begins with a case of “false speech” (Gen. 3:1). It ends with a sustained showdown with the ancient serpent, also described as the deceiver of the whole world (Rev. 12:9).”[3] God could have silenced Satan immediately, but He chose not to. He does not silence false speech by force; instead He reveals His character. God’s remedy for “false speech” is “more speech.” God counteracts falsehood with revelation. God speaks the truth in love, and He does not even need to use words.

And yet, when the Bible does speak about the power of words and our speech, it gives sound advice. In this age of polarization, consider the wisdom of the apostle Paul: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31–32).

The best speech is redemptive. Instead of trying to silence people, it includes as many as possible under the banner of love. It reminds me of the poem "Outwitted" by Edwin Markham:

   He drew a circle that shut me out —

   Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

   But love and I had the wit to win:

   We drew a circle and took him in!

 

[2] John Inazu, Confident Pluralism (The University of Chicago, 2016), p. 132.

[3] Sigve Tonstad, Revelation (Baker Academic, 2019).