"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Freer Speech

The terms “free speech” and “censorship” are a common fixture in today’s political discussions and typically a source of conflict; two factions disagree about the meaning of both the universally acknowledged good of free speech and the accompanying social phenomenon of censorship. One is composed of free speech absolutists, claiming that citizens should have the right to say anything they want–whenever they want. The other takes the approach that speech can and should be limited when a speaker endangers or offends his listeners by his or her speech.

Similar to most morally ambiguous and divisive social issues, a refreshing response to this disagreement of meaning requires a balanced consideration of particular circumstances (place and time) and the acknowledgement that a satisfactory answer will not be neat and uniform but will require “both-and” statements that simultaneously affirm and reject the claims for which both parties passionately fight.

In seeking to bridge the apparent gap, perhaps we should look to one type of institution that should be encouraging these sorts of “both-and” conversations: faith-based institutions of higher education (IHEs). At these institutions, there should hopefully exist a near ubiquitous agreement among students, faculty, and administration that freedom is not synonymous with pure license and that the gift of freedom is actualized when we act not as we please but as we ought. In addition, it should be understood that speech is one of the primary means by which we are able to put freedom into practice. This is so much the case that G.K. Chesterton identified the theory of free speech, “that truth is so much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of,” as “one of the great discoveries of the modern time.” Finally, members of the communities that make up these IHEs should at least know, as well as heed the words of St. James: “if anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is in vain” (James 1:26). In other words, the culture of faith-based IHEs should habitually confirm that speech, or the tongue (to use the physical language of the epistle), is a gift of immense power–designed to bring us closer to truth–that can easily be abused.

The incredible responsibilities that are commensurate with this understanding could seem overwhelming for administrators and faculty trying to mold a both-and culture at faith-based IHEs. However, they should find solace in the fact that these demands are eminently practical and achievable precisely because Christians are made to know them and live them out. Unfortunately, this solace does not solve the current tension between defending the freedom of those in their communities to speak as they wish and properly responding to the scriptural demand to place a grave emphasis on the responsibility to speak well, not using the tongue as a force for evil.

It is clear enough to me that the latter responsibility is not merely a matter of individual concern; the personal dimension of virtuous speech is only tested when brought into the social sphere.  Furthermore, there is a corporate responsibility that faith-based IHEs should recognize as central to their mission. If students do not learn how to use their speech well by the time they leave college, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they will ever learn how to use it well. Because the time spent at college is a uniquely formative one, there is a special duty on the part of faculty and administration to clarify the extent and limits of speech. If there is not a clear consensus about these limits across the campus, it would seem difficult to create any sense of mutual trust among the community. In this case, the perspective of the university on the sanctity of speech is only clarified during times of controversy, leaving community members wondering whether a coherent understanding of free speech was ever clarified before the controversial incident. Sadly, this portrayal describes the status quo at many IHEs–even ones animated by a faith-based mission. The gravity of this issue demands a lucid and active articulation throughout the year, not just at moments that demand a press release.

Faith-based IHEs have been imparted with a particular responsibility: make speech freer. Theoretically, this means understanding what freedom is, how we actualize it in speech, and how easily and frequently we corrupt these twofold priorities. Practically, this means proactively integrating notions of freer speech throughout the common curriculum of the institution and making the theory and its implications known throughout the academic year from every structural level. Perhaps both the improved theorization and better practice of ‘free speech’ will give students, faculty, and administrators the ability to speak with more freedom.