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October 20, 2022

CU Gloria Law Student Argues For Biblical Precedent of Free Speech


By Jess Tong

 

The Nature, Purpose, and Manner of Speech 

The Bible reveals the nature of speech as something that belongs to both God and man. The Bible tells us that speech is something God does, for He spoke the world itself into existence.  God speaks to communicate with His people, for He spoke to the prophets, Jesus spoke to people on earth, and God speaks to us now through the Bible and His Holy Spirit. The Bible also tells us about our own speech – that it is something God can control and take away from us, as He did with Zechariah, that words have the “power of life and death,” and that our speech is a reflection of our heart.


free speech

The Bible also gives us examples of the purpose of speech. We speak to God through prayer with words. Jesus teaches his disciples to pray with words, though the Spirit also intercedes for us “with groanings too deep for words.” We are supposed to proclaim the good news with words, as we see Jesus preaching to the people in words. We are to exhort and encourage one another with words. We are also to rebuke one another with words when necessary. The Bible gives some “time, place, and manner” restrictions to speech. We are to be quick to listen and slow to speak. We are to speak with love. If we speak without love, we are like a noisy gong. We are to speak truthfully. 


The Purpose of Life  

Just as the three existing theories give some account of what man is for, whether it is discovering what is true through experimentation, deliberating about political truths, or expressing one’s own emotions and beliefs, the Bible also gives its own account of the purpose of life. Christians are commanded to be fruitful and multiply, to go and make disciples of all nations,  to do good works, and to follow Jesus. However, to the question, “What is the chief end of man?”, the Westminster Catechism answers, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” Thus, the Catechism understood all of God’s commands to be in service of the ultimate end of glorifying and enjoying God forever. 


The goods to be pursued in life are truth (John 14:6. John 8:32. Psalm 25:5), love (1  Corinthians 13:13), the kingdom of God and His righteousness (“Seek first the kingdom of God  …”), and whatever is true, honorable, lovely, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).  


The Nature of Man 

To formulate a theory of free speech that applies to all people, we also ought to look at what characteristics are common to all people according to the Bible. As stated in Genesis 1:27, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This may mean, among other interpretations, that God designed man to share certain characteristics with God, such as the ability to create and to communicate. 


To the Romans, Paul wrote that “we have all sinned and fall short of God’s glory” and that “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made…for although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” In other words, we, in fact, know about God through the things in the world. Finally, to Jesus, the crowds were “like sheep without a shepherd” and Jesus “began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34). We need guidance about the truth and how to live. 

The Role of Human Government 

The state, by God’s design, has the power to take away all freedoms if laws are put in place to do so. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1; 1 Pet 2:13-17.) Rulers are meant to carry out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4).  


However, human government was always supposed to be secondary to God’s rule over people. In fact, perhaps we only need human government out of rebellion against God’s government. God appointed kings to rule over His people only because the people wanted judges. He was angry that His people wanted a king to be like the nations when God was already their king (1 Sam 8:4-20, Jud 11:27). 


A Christian Theory of Speech  

This account of the nature of speech, the goal of life, the nature of man, and the role of government, suggests that most speech, including falsehoods, should not be regulated unless  human beings can be sure that some speech is wrongdoing. The purpose of speech, like all else  in life, is to glorify God. Thus, we should especially protect speech that is in line with what  speech and life are for—to pursue good things (e.g. truth, love, righteousness), speak to God,  encourage or rightly rebuke others, and proclaim the gospel.  


Although plenty of speech can fail to do that, the Bible cautions against trusting human beings to regulate other people’s speech – not because humans can never know what is true or what is commendable – but because humans themselves are prone to exchanging truths for lies and not carrying out justice. However, perhaps some speech can be regulated if that speech is clearly wrongdoing. Is there any speech that human rulers can be sure is wrongdoing, such that they are right to carry out not their own wrath but God’s wrath on the wrongdoer?  


Applying this Christian Theory of Speech to Current Speech Controversies 

Hate speech 


Regulating hate speech requires defining what hate speech is. Insofar as hate speech is defined as speech that would certainly incur the wrath of God, perhaps then that speech could be punished. However, some speech can be perceived to incur the wrath of God but, in fact, be truthful and merely offensive to some. A biblical theory of free speech may counsel us to be very careful about regulating hate speech without explicit guidance from God about what speech should be punished.  


Misinformation  

Misinformation includes lies and non-deliberate falsehoods. While it is wrong to tell lies,  the Christian faith leaves room for doubt (Doubting Thomas; Mark 9:23-25). When someone speaks a falsehood while believing it is true, I’m not sure that incurs the wrath of God. Perhaps instead that is what was meant by being sheep without a shepherd (Mark 5:34) – to be lost, not knowing what the truth is. If that is the case, Jesus had compassion, not wrath.  


Government vs. Big Tech censorship 

Big Tech, corporations made up of people, have not been appointed by God to punish wrongdoing and praise good works. They are more similar to individuals who do not have a right or a privilege to prohibit other people’s speech. Only God has that right, and only the government has been appointed to carry out God’s wrath upon the wrongdoer by potentially punishing speech. 


That being said, when Big Tech censors speech, they are not necessarily punishing people by taking away their livelihood or lives. They are merely deplatforming them. This can have the indirect consequence of taking away their livelihood (e.g., if the de-platformed person works as a content creator on Youtube). But tech companies’ actions against users are not the same as government action against wrongdoers.  


Therefore, their own actions of deplatforming users can be sanctioned or punished by the government only if those actions themselves incur the wrath of God. Do they? In any case, it is not clear that technology companies have the privilege to deplatform people as they wish. Tech companies have the privilege to deplatform people if they have no duty to do otherwise. However,  the Bible counsels its followers to be quick to listen (Jas 1:19) and humble about what we believe is truthful or hateful. Perhaps this amounts to a moral duty not to deplatform users.  Nevertheless, their violation of their moral duty not to deplatform should still not be actionable unless the government must sanction them to carry out God’s wrath against them. 
 

Tech companies may have the claim-right to speak via content moderation policies if others have a duty to allow them to speak. Perhaps the general population, including users, do have a duty to allow tech companies to speak because we are all counseled to be quick to listen.  


Is it possible to have a duty to allow others to speak, even when their speech prohibits you from speaking? If so, not only are tech companies not sanctionable for their speech but users also have a duty to allow tech companies to deplatform them.  


Conclusion 

This essay has sought to evaluate our current theories of free speech by viewing these theories’ assumptions from a Christian perspective. This paper has also posed a potential theory of free speech that incorporates the Christian view of the nature of speech, the purpose of life, the nature of man, and the role of human government. Ultimately, this essay has sought to develop a theory of free speech acknowledging the tension of living under two governments – the civil government and the kingdom of God. My aim is not to resolve the question of what the Bible says about free speech but to simply open the conversation about what the law of free speech and a culture of free speech should be based on a Christian worldview.