Limits and Offenses: How Free Should Our Speech Be?

| January 16, 2015

“What the #$%& is happening in France,” a friend asked me in a text message last week as French anti-terrorism police surrounded the town of Crépy-en-Valois and battled  a hostage situation at a Kosher market in the 12th arrondissement of Paris. My reply, “Immigration and freedom of the press…” was perhaps a bit too wry, too soon after the deadly attack on the self-proclaimed “Journal Irresponsable” Charlie Hebdo, but it expressed a couple of factors that have made the untangling of the recent attacks in Paris even more complicated. Fret not, xenophobia, the Front National, and French Immigration policy are beyond the scope of this blog. However, I will take this opportunity to talk about freedom of the press/speech, and how Christians should respond to the events in France.

To be sure, the actions of the Kouachi brothers, are grotesque and diabolic. And like many, my thoughts and prayers have been with the victims, their families, the people of Paris, and the nation of France many times over the past few days.

However, more needs to be said about this “right” of freedom of speech. My colleague wrote earlier this week that the freedom of speech is “all about…the freedom to offend,” and that we religious, because of our own “propensity to offend” should make us all the more ready to protect the rights of others to offend us. In this, Bisits writes, “we have a common cause with other religious individuals – especially Muslims.” I understand what was being said, but I want to try to add some nuance.

Yes, the Christian position is often one of offense; foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews, as Saint Paul the Apostle wrote to the Church at Corinth. However, there is a difference between causing offense and seeking to offend. I do not think it is too difficult to argue that Christians, while not being ashamed of causing an offense, should never seek to offend for the sake of offense itself. Even the art of satire is not merely offense for pure shock value. As Protestant Commentator John Stonestreet points out in today’s BreakPoint commentary, quoting Carl Trueman in a recent “First Things” article, satire should “provoke thoughtful reflection”. The satirist points out flaws to bring about improvement of society, or at the very least an honesty willing to admit a problem. As far as I can tell, this is not the operating paradigm of Charlie Hebdo.

Without opening the Pandora’s box which is fundamental human rights, let me say one thing: permission to say anything you want, whenever you want, with absolutely no consequences, has never been supported by scripture or the Church; nor, for that matter, has it been enshrined by the United States Constitution or any of the post-Revolution French Constitutions (the yelling-“fire”-in-a-crowded-theatre or joking-about-bombs-in-the-security-line-at-the-airport examples fit here well). So while it may be good for people to be able to speak their minds, it is also important to realize that there are limits. Pope Francis remarks on these limits in a recent interview given en route to the Philippines. “You cannot provoke, you cannot insult the faith of others, you cannot make fun of the faith,” the Holy Father says.

As Christians, that can seem easy to understand, if hard to put into practice. But in France, where laïcité is the word of the day, the freedom of speech is coming into conflict not just with radical Islamists like the Kouachi brothers, but with those who voice support of the attackers. How does a state protect both the freedom of speech and the lives of its citizens. The answer is simply, limits on what exactly free speech is. As Christians, it can be easy for us to understand and learn to limit our own free speech, but in a secular post-modern republic where the individual is king, any limits at all are going to be very difficult.

The featured image is from AP/Peter DeJong via Lebanon Daily News.