We must defend free speech – or must we?

(Photo: Unsplash/Matt Botsford)

A news item in the London Times this week will have proved unsettling reading for many people. A survey of students carried out by a UK-based think-tank, the Policy Exchange, found that significant numbers of them favoured limiting free speech and banning those whose views they disagreed with.

A quarter – 26 per cent - favoured 'no platforming' Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg, for example; 41 per cent believed Cambridge University had been right to rescind Jordan Peterson's academic fellowship (with only 31 per cent disagreeing, and the rest undecided); and 44 per cent believed Cardiff University should have banned feminist Germaine Greer from speaking after she was given the label 'transphobic' by transgender ideologists, with 35 per cent disagreeing.

Of course, we will have been aware of many high profile cases in which freedom of speech has been an issue. But the very significant proportion of students who want outright bans on those with whom they disagree is deeply worrying.

Free speech is a human right – isn't it? In the US, for example, the 1789 Bill of Rights clearly states: 'Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech.' In the UK, the Human Rights Act 1998 says: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of expression.' But at the same time this freedom 'may be subject to ... conditions, restrictions or penalties as are necessary in a democratic society'. Such limits include the 1986 Public Order Act which bans 'threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress'.

We're probably familiar with some of the philosophy underlying the idea of free speech: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,' is one famous dictum often wrongly attributed to Voltaire but in fact written by English writer Beatrice Evelyn Hall in 1906. And John Stuart Mill argued for 'absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological'.

But in practice, virtually no-one believes in completely free speech: for example, most people would not want primetime TV space for a paedophile to advocate the legalisation of sexual activity with children, or a Nazi to advocate the extermination of Jews and other minorities. Writer and former MP Matthew Parris has shrewdly observed recently that society, rightly or wrongly, is always intolerant of something: 'The well of human intolerance remains deep and constant,' he wrote in The Times. 'It only shifts its furies from one disfavoured group to another.' In other words, where precisely we draw the boundaries of free speech alters over time according to a society's shifting ethics.

Is there a Christian view on all this? Writing about academic freedom, Tom Simpson, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, makes this point which is also pertinent to free speech: 'Humanity's fallenness affects every dimension of the person. This includes our capacity to reason. Due to human finitude, our grasp of truth will always be limited; ...we will frequently be wrong... No one has such a secure or extensive grasp of truth that they have nothing to learn from others.' There is great truth in that.

But another important element in thinking about free speech lies in the concept of Christian liberty. This applies in many areas as well as speech, but is highly relevant here. What we tend to see is that, in any area, without the unique insights that Christianity can offer, society collectively (and people individually) tend to veer towards one of two extremes. These might be called 'legalism' and 'licentiousness'. Legalism means trying to restrict things very specifically. Licentiousness means (in its broadest sense) 'unrestrained by law or general morality'. And we can see how different societies or groups across the world which ignore or disregard Christian thinking tend, on the whole, to veer towards one of those two extremes. UK campuses are perhaps swinging from the 'licentiousness' end of the spectrum in speech towards legalism.

The Christian way is neither legalism nor licentiousness but 'liberty'. Christian thinking recognises the unique and huge power of words (from the opening pages of the Bible where God speaks, and from there on). But it encourages us to use that power wisely. For example, we are to let our words be 'gracious and seasoned with salt'. But at the same time we are to exercise self-restraint lest our tongue become 'a fire' and cause damage akin to a forest blaze.

So should we all have 'free speech'? I think, from a Christian perspective, absolutely. But that Christian liberty will mean we often choose not to speak, rather than speak, to bite our tongue and hold back words that may not help. In this way, as with the gospel generally, change and freedom come from within. As Jesus puts it: 'Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks,' (Matthew 12:34). So what do your words say about your heart? How do you exercise Christian liberty in speech? Do you need to speak more boldly – or more wisely? What might be good to change?

David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A