Understanding the Free Speech Debate

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(Photo: Courtesy of Carmen LaBerge)Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and host of "The Reconnect with Carmen LaBerge," radio program.

Free speech protects the kind of speech we don't like. It seems obvious, but popular speech doesn't need protection because it has the benefit of public or political support. Currently, as we find more and more speech offensive, the question is raised, "do we want to extend protections to that speech?"

The lines of this debate are changing. There is not agreement among even likely allies on what it looks like to protect speech and which speech deserves protection. Just last week, a New York Times editorial told the storied civil rights defense organization, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to "rethink free speech" and how they defend it. The pressure has been so great, the organization's director seemed to indicate they are willing to bend on it.

So while it's become commonplace to hear about protests and threats keeping conservative speakers off liberal university campuses because of the content of their speech, something else is happening. The self-appointed speech police are not only barring Ann Coulter but also Richard Dawkins from gaining a hearing in Berkeley. Yes, the atheist evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was de-platformed for speech regarded as offensive. That's new.

Berkeley-area radio station KPFA canceled a scheduled book event with the renowned scientist and author, due to what they called "abusive speech" against Islam. Dawkins, who views himself as an equal-opportunity religion critic, knows exactly what this is about. He has been criticizing Christianity for years, but it was his comments on Islam that riled people. He released an open letter in response, pointing out the hypocrisy:

"I am known as a frequent critic of Christianity and have never been de-platformed for that. Why do you give Islam a free pass? Why is it fine to criticise Christianity but not Islam?"

Dawkins seems to have underestimated the power of the speech police to hold even him— a darling of the liberal, intellectual class— to their of-the-moment standards. Any student of generational trends would not be surprised. Pew reported that 40% of Millennials are OK with limiting speech offensive to minorities. While still not yet a majority contingent, that number of people who favor restricting free speech is significantly higher than for previous generations.

If we are indeed, reaching an inflexion point on speech, there are a few things to remember.

Defining hate

Under-girding our conversation about speech is a conversation about hate. What is hate and who defines it? These are actually moral questions. But how do we as a society answer moral questions without reference to a moral authority beyond the prevailing public opinion of the majority? And if we have become our own authority, then how are minority opinions and viewpoints preserved and honored?

Without a fixed moral authority, and every person acting as an autonomous being, chaos will ensue. For example, recently the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled several conservative organizations "hate groups" for holding the unpopular view of marriage between one man and one woman.

The SPLC is seeking to redefine hate according to its own definition and pervert what God has said is good and beautiful and true. Who cares what the SPLC thinks? CNN for starters. They reposted the SPLC's designated list of hate groups following the events in Charlottesville in mid August.

It is important for us as Christians to engage this question with our feet planted in the never changing Truth. While God is light and in Him there is no darkness; God is love who also hates that which competes with Him for His children's affection. Why? Because He is both holy – and jealous for us.

God hates evil. God hates evil so much that He left the glory of heaven to condescend to our mortal reality and deal with evil's power and penalty on our behalf.

Understanding the Marketplace of ideas

Let us not imagine that the defense of free speech comes only from Christian or conservative quarters. The value of the free exchange of ideas, including ideas that deeply offend us, is the American way.

The ACLU is known for fighting on behalf of civil rights, progressive legal causes and other minority rights. In the past, they also have defended the rights of the KKK, neo-Nazis and the like. Why? Is that speech also protected speech? James Esseks, director of the LGBT and HIV Project at the ACLU explained,

"Without free speech protections, all civil rights advocacy could be shut down by the people in power, precisely because government doesn't agree with the ideas activists advance. That was true of the civil rights fights of the past, it's true of the movements facing pitched battles today, and it will be true of the movements of the future that are still striving to be heard."

In this country we have long hailed the value of a free exchange in the "marketplace of ideas." A true pluralistic society makes room for competing truth claims. In this view, we believe, given equal opportunity, the best ideas will prevail.

For Christians, this should be a gift, not a threat. In Acts 17:22-23, Paul parlayed the notable religiosity and curiosity of the Areopagus into a conversation about Jesus. We live in a pluralistic culture with competing and even clashing worldviews. It is time Christians in America walk around in the marketplace of ideas and recognize that the real Jesus Christ is unknown to our neighbors.

Christians can be confident that when given the opportunity to compete in a marketplace of ideas, the good news of the Gospel is just as true and winsome as it was in Athens twenty centuries ago. But that is also why those who now seek to limit speech, whether it be evangelical Christian speech or Richard Dawkins' religiously critical speech, is so troubling.

Living Truth

So, how then do we live? We live the truth. We live with and before others, the truth that sets us free. We live as free people and we speak freely even when others cover their ears. And whenever given the opportunity, we stand ready to give an account for the hope-filled truth we know in Jesus Christ.

We enter the arena of ideas with a testimony to a God who is good, beautiful and true. And we enter therein with lives that reflect that reality.

People today love a good story, especially stories of redemption. Each and every Christian has an undeniably personal story about the personal God, in whom we have a personal beginning, who allows personal choice, who offers personal redemption and a personal future filled with hope, belonging, meaning and purpose. We not only have the truth the world needs, we know Him personally.

As Christians, we are called not just to speak— but to live the Truth. So, let us enter into the marketplace of ideas prepared to have conversations with culturally-minded people who are not only exposed to the quality of our ideas but who can find no argument with the excellence of our lives.

Originally posted at reconnectwithcarmen.com

Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, host of "The Reconnect with Carmen LaBerge," radio program, and author of Speak the Truth: How to Bring God Back Into Every Conversation, to be released September 25th.