Freedom of Speech

In June, I had a very interesting conversation with someone who verbalised a concern that seems to be growing in our society, namely, that the extent of our ‘freedom of speech’ is being curtailed in some worrying ways. They put their concern, from what they feel many are beginning to say, like this: ‘any view is acceptable, but only as long as it agrees with mine’! I am sure you get the irony, which is of course, that for some, not every view is acceptable to be expressed, but rather only those that are within personally defined and limited parameters.

I am no legal expert, but I know that freedom of speech does need to have a few limits, for example: inciting violence; inciting a crime; or saying something that might cause physical harm or panic. Where this objective line is crossed, the law should come into force. But should we limit freedom of speech where it might cause offence? I don’t think we should, because disagreeing with someone is always likely to cause some offense and if it were illegal, different views could never be mentioned or discussed!

As a Christian, I would say that I am very much a liberal because I want to engage with other people’s differing views in case I might be wrong, and I would like to think that others would always be open to hear mine for the same reason. Sharing, listening and debating different opinions (even at times offensive) is good for society and human flourishing, so that what is right, good and best can come to the surface.

To put this in terms of a word we seem to be using a lot these days ‘respect’, I believe that all people should be respected, but not that all views be required to be respected, because not all are necessarily worthy of respect, and may be bad. Just as this is my approach, I would hope that others would treat me and my views likewise.

So what am I saying? In the UK we do not thankfully live in a physically totalitarian state, but I do worry that we seem to be living in a society which is showing signs of being ‘ideologically totalitarian’ and it is of course only a few short steps before you start to criminalise what are subjectively deemed to be wrong thoughts and speech. Just this last week I attended a seminar on the life of John Bunyan, author of Pilgrims Progress, who because of his belief in the right to tell people the Christian Gospel (by preaching on the streets) he went to prison for 12 years.

So, in the spirit of freedom of speech, which in our society came from the Judeo-Christian values of the bible, and many people lost their lives to gain it, may I leave you with a few quotations to mull over in July:

“Freedom of speech is a principle pillar of free government; when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved and tyranny is erected on its ruins.” Benjamin Franklin

“Without freedom of expression and without freedom to offend, freedom ceases to exist.” Salman Rushdie

“If freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we will be led, like a sheep to the slaughter.” George

“If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.” Noam Chomsky

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Volataire

“I disagree with everything you say, but I would never suppress your right to say it.” Unknown

With my prayers for a thoughtful July

Revd James Hunt – Rector St Peter’s Bishops Waltham and Blessed Mary Upham

1st July 2018

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