Is free speech an absolute freedom that should not be countermanded? The recent appearance of the leader of the British National Party on the flagship public debate program on the BBC was defended on the grounds of free speech. Today on BBC radio there was a campaign to stop cyber bullying. Cyber bullying is the use of social networking sites like Facebook to write cruel and unpleasant things about an individual. Recently, a young woman killed herself after being the victim of cyber bullying.
Political correctness has been developed in order to limit the offence cause to others by the way that we speak. It is a lost cause. Whatever you say, someone is bound to be offended. Some local authorities have stopped saying Merry Christmas for fear of offending non-Christians. In doing so they have offended Christians. Attempts at limiting offence to Muslims have offended homosexuals. Attempts at limiting offence to homosexuals have offended Muslims. Some politically correct language has offended pedants like me who want to preserve the English language in all its glory.
I do not think free speech is an absolute. Whether you have free speech depends on the context. If you live on a mountain in Montana you can just about say what you want, principally because nobody likely to be offended is going to hear you. As with so many things, context is vital. You do not have freedom to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded concert hall.
There is no law that prevents you from saying something offensive, just the convention of good manners. As I have said before, a secular book I read on the great virtues puts politeness at the head of the list since, since society is impossible without it.
The Wire was reckoned to be the best TV program to come out of America in years. However, the dialogue was replete with offensive words. One sequence showing two detectives tracing the path of a bullet was free of dialogue apart from the dozens of 'F**ks' uttered. African Americans generally referred to each other as 'N*gg*r', but, of course, no 'Honky' would be allowed to do so. Oh! Am I allowed to use that word? When the program was broadcast in the UK, the BBC gave clear warnings of what some viewers would find offensive. There is such a thing as an 'off' switch.
We have a grading system for movies and videos. We have parental PINS to prevent our children getting access to some Internet sites. When my wife was a librarian some books were kept 'under the counter' because they were thought unsuitable for minors. In some newsagents the 'Girlie' magazines are kept on the top shelf, out of the way of the prying eyes of young children. Over the years there has been a liberalising approach to anything concerned with sex. We find it hard to believe that our forebears put skirts on table legs. Some years ago an editor was sent to prison for publishing a blasphemous libel; a homoerotic poem about Jesus. It is very unlikely that the same thing would happen now.
Yet Britain is the libel capital of the world; the offended sue here to get bigger payouts. We limit free speech by law if it seeks to defame with an untruth. The question that concerns libertarians is whether the state wishes to extend the powers it has to censor what people say. Minority groups are worried that legislation that, no doubt, with good intent wants to enshrine good manners in law, might restrict legitimate comment. The trouble with free speech legislation is that it goes too far. Homosexuals want to be protected from bullying and free to express their sexuality in public in the same way that heterosexuals do. But if it is granted to homosexuals under the heading of free speech, what is to stop pedophiles or those who like sex with animals claiming the same? I am not equating all these practices, but there is no disguising the fact that homosexuality disgusts a sizable section of the population. There are not enough prisons to punish Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.
The liberalising tendency is winning at the moment, but it will not always be so. A backlash is developing against unfettered immigration. In 1979 the unrestrained power of the Unions left the dead unburied and rats running loose in the streets as garbage went uncollected. As a result, Mrs Thatcher's government cut off the Unions at the knees. Privatisation sapped the power of organized labor. Restrictive legislation (unrepealed by Tony Blair) enfeebled the strike threat. Right wing governments have not gone for ever.
What is the Christian perspective on free speech? It centers mainly on the freedom to preach the gospel. In many countries this is restricted, but not yet in the UK. Christians generally prefer to live in an ordered society and not to question the right of the government to govern; render unto Caesar... even if he is a tyrant. However, rendering unto God comes first and if there is a conflict they are willing to suffer the punishment the state decrees. Not that this means that they will not campaign against perceived wrongs. Men like Wilberforce campaigned against the slave trade when most of society thought slavery in Jamaica preferable to wage-slavery in Lancashire. Is free speech something that they should campaign for? Remember what was said about those who lead children astray. Something about millstones and deep sea diving, as I recall. If children are to be protected there is already an exception. Freedom of expression is a lot more complicated and blanket laws are not helpful.
Should Christians be offended? I think we have a responsibility not to seek out offence. I would never go to a Gay-Pride parade. I would not watch late-night TV programs meant to titillate. I would not buy Girlie magazines. But I might protest if I thought that bad language was commonplace in all television programs, or same-sex-snogging became a part of children's TV. Everything must be seen in context. I believe there are absolutes when it comes to right and wrong. Not everything that is sinful is unlawful. Jesus's take on murder was having hateful thoughts about another person. How do you legislate for that. There are far more adulterers than homosexuals in our churches, and far more gossips than both. We should start putting our own house in order before we insist on reform in unbelievers. While sexual sins are important, they are not more important than the many other sins listed in Scripture - including gossip, neglect of parents and mean-spiritedness.
So, no I do not think free speech is an absolute. I do believe in politeness and in only giving offence when you may legitimately intend to.