What does Christianity have to do with Freedom of Speech?


Free speech is eroding in the UK. Speakers with a wide variety of views deemed politically incorrect are ‘no-platformed’ in university campuses and public venues across the country. The government proposes to bring social media under Ofcom’s state regulation, with tighter speech restrictions than are legally required.[1] Youtube is ahead of Ofcom, censoring, for example, videos deviating from mainstream Covid information.[2] In Scotland, the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill (SP Bill 67) was introduced to Parliament on 23 April 2020. It would, under certain circumstances, criminalize possession of texts considered hateful. Furthermore, despite feedback from faith groups, the Bill opens the door to prosecution of individuals whose disagreement with the recent cultural narrative concerning transgenderism is labeled hateful.[3]

Freedom of speech is the issue of our times because on it hinges society’s ability to think and debate every other issue. But how did we get to where we are, and is there a distinctively Christian response to the vexed question of free speech and its limits?

What do we mean when we say, ‘Free Speech?’

Researchers Hallberg and Virkkunen write: ‘The principle of freedom of speech means the right to express, publish and receive information, opinions and other communication without interference from any source.’[4]

Free speech has a rich history. Christian thinkers have advocated for it from at least the sixteenth century. John Wycliffe and reformers such as Martin Luther and William Tyndale insisted on their right to speak. Dutch theologian Dirck Coornhert (1522-90) advocated religious toleration, and with it freedom of speech and of the press.[5] Politically, Sweden was the first nation to break legal ground in favour of freedom of speech and information in 1766.[6] Since then, national and international laws have recognized freedom of speech as a human right.[7] The UN Declaration of Human Rights states, ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’[8]

Despite being enshrined in international law, six billion of the earth’s inhabitants know little of that freedom in practice.[9] Closer to home, recent legal and societal limitations on speech are chilling free speech in the West.

Limits on Speech

Speech has traditionally only been limited where it is directly linked to physical violence. However, in the West today, three further limits are being placed upon it: (i) speech laws, (ii) institutional regulations and (iii) social expectations.

  • Speech Laws

Since 9/11, the UK, Australia, and USA have implemented laws to regulate ‘hate speech regarded as harmful in the saying of it and seditious speech directed at undermining democratic and constitutional authority.’[10] The rationale is that to protect citizens’ freedoms, greater security is needed – security itself being the supreme freedom. Therefore, in order to ensure the freedom to be secure, other liberties take second tier.

Another outcome of 9/11 has been the creation of laws to protect against specific discrimination. The UK Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 addressed Islamophobia.[11] Building on this, in 2008, sexual orientation gained legal protection from ‘hate speech’.[12]

While these laws are well intended and provide legitimate protections, there is now a potential clash of freedoms. A recent conference on ‘equality’ took for granted that ‘[the] manifestation of religion can be subject to “proportionate restriction”. This is particularly relevant in relation to the rights of LGBT persons not to face discrimination.’[13]

Dealing with hate and speech crime is keeping law enforcement personnel busy. Reported religion hate crimes increased in England and Wales almost threefold from 2011/12 to 2015/16, reaching over 4,000 charges.[14] An October 2014 Freedom of Information request showed that ‘12,000 people were prosecuted for offensive speech on social media between 2008 and 2013.’[15] Speech crime reporting is on the rise, and there is no sign of this trend abating.

While these laws represent significant changes, they are in fact only legislative indicators of a rapid and sweeping societal transformation underway concerning how people view speech.

Institutional and Societal Speech Rules

In 2020, Westerners live under heightened social pressure to watch what they say. For example, in June Stu Peters was suspended from Manx Radio for questioning the idea of ‘white privilege’.[16] Societal speech rules are also being institutionalized in settings such as schools and universities, as well as social media. For example, following complaints over freedom of speech, Wellesley College (USA) explained that it simultaneously maintains free speech but also considers it appropriate to ‘[shut] down speech’ with respect to any subject which they label a ‘phobia’ or ‘hate speech’.[17] In England, a school suspended a teacher for accidentally calling a transgendered boy a girl; ‘misgendering’ is not illegal, but neither is it necessarily allowed.[18]

Various defences have been offered to support the subjugation of free speech to other rights.

Some who seek to regulate public speech affirm freedom of speech but see it as subordinate to the value of ‘non-discrimination’. According to one spokesperson, ‘freedom of speech’ is a cover for discrimination.[19] Advocates argue that sometimes ‘speech is violence’ and therefore can be curtailed.[20]

This is problematic in three ways. Firstly, it can be used to shut down dialogue without allowing an opportunity to evaluate the reasonableness of the other’s opinion. Secondly, protecting people from ideas which make them uncomfortable does not develop clearer thinkers or stronger individuals.[21] Then thirdly, we must assert that while words can influence, the listener remains a free agent whose actions are their responsibility. It is an error to conflate the moral responsibility of one’s words into the legal responsibility for another’s actions.

It has also been argued that the purpose of free speech is to ‘actually challenge, rather than reiterate, the status quo’, and therefore free speech is misused when employed to defend traditional viewpoints.[22] However, this argument is in fact an attempt to use free speech to suppress free speech, and assumes, without proving, an intellectual high ground over traditional viewpoints.

The cumulative effect of laws, institutional standards and societal pressure shapes free speech today. The effects are widespread.

Frequently, when we label certain words ‘hate speech’ we silence the voices who speak them. Many people ‘self-censor’ their speech. George Orwell describes this phenomenon: ‘Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.”[23]

This week as I write, virtual silence from much, though not all, of the government and law enforcement is the response to the fact that huge Black Lives Matter protests are breaking Covid-19 social-distancing laws and arguably endangering many vulnerable lives, black, Asian, and white. People fear being unfairly labeled racist.[24] On university campuses unofficial speech bans are enforced through taking ‘offense’. As a result, many campuses are noted for their speech restrictions and ‘trigger warnings’.[25] Roger Scruton, warns that this same trend marked the twentieth century totalitarian movements in Russia and Germany.[26] Jordan Peterson concurs: ‘I’ve studied authoritarianism for a very long time – for 40 years – and they’re started by people’s attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory.”[27]

Theological Perspective on Free Speech

What if we examine these challenges to free speech theologically? While the Bible does not speak directly about ‘free speech’, it provides a theological lens through which to examine today’s debates.

God himself embodies truth. We were made for God; therefore, central to our existence must be a pursuit of truth in the whole of life.[28] God exemplifies free speech despite the risk of offense: the entire Bible is his message to a rebellious humanity which finds its claims deeply offensive.[29] God created humans in his image and gave us, unique among earthly creatures, the God-like capabilities of rational thought and speech and the freedom to employ them.[30] Honoring the image of God in fellow humans must include honoring these capabilities and the corresponding freedom. Since Adam’s fall, humans’ thinking is marred by sin, and our ability to rightly use power is corrupted.[31] The freedom for members of society to name and confront what they believe to be wrong, to debate issues, and to speak truth to power is an essential counterweight to human depravity and an indispensible tool in the pursuit of truth and justice.[32]

The entire story of Scripture is an exercise in free speech. The historical books and the gospels do not gloss over the shadow side of Biblical characters and events, but lay the stories out frankly and unadorned. Prophets called out the evils of those in political and priestly office. Scripture is giving us principles which undergird the importance of free speech and a free press, by which history is recorded accurately and government is held accountable. The current trend towards limiting and proscribing speech raises questions whether those in power are in fact seeking to rewrite history and to exercise power without accountability.

Jesus himself did not allow anyone to dictate his message but spoke according to his convictions. Christ urged people to go beyond accepted norms and think for themselves. He was neither liberal nor conservative: he called people back to the ancient Scriptures while challenging the status quo. Furthermore, he allowed any question from any person, and he never removed an apostle from his office for failures in speech. By taking this approach, he gave people the opportunity to confess their need or discover their ignorance and consequently to learn from him.

John Warwick Montgomery highlights this principle:

‘The answer to obnoxious viewpoints must not be that of a paternalistic society endeavouring to wall off its citizenry from falsehood through criminal penalties. To do so smacks of the very totalitarianism one desperately wants to eliminate…. The distance between stupidity and political incorrectness is hardly a bright line, and society needs to protect the right to be wrong and insensitive; otherwise, truth can be imprisoned as easily as falsehood.’[33]

It is noteworthy that regardless of the content of others’ speech, Jesus’ response to words was words. The only corrective action Jesus took was in response to the actions of others who set up shop in the temple precincts.

David French said, ‘Absent virtue, liberty can lead to disorder. In the face of that disorder, however, we shouldn’t restrict liberty; we should rebuild virtue.’[34] The gospel both provides a rationale for free speech and supplies the moral resources to promote virtuous speech through its ethic of love. Furthermore, it provides the grace which makes possible what today’s society rarely considers when speech rules are broken: forgiveness and restoration.

What is driving the rise in speech regulation in the West? Since our post-Enlightenment society denies any revelatory word from God, it derives its knowledge from human reason. The Enlightenment project has led most people to believe that self-definition, personal autonomy and happiness are ultimate values. This is our vision of ‘the good life’. In the absence of absolute realities, how I feel and what I want become my identity. So you disagreeing with who I say I am (e.g. transgender) is more than a disagreement; it is an assault on my person and on society’s highest value. We desire a society where people live at peace, but many culture shapers reject the peace of respectful tolerance; we require the peace of enforced ‘non-discrimination’. It seems that speech laws are an attempt to solve conflict in such a society.

Moreover, when post-9/11 lawmakers determined that speech could now be equal in criminality to action, the immediate results included terrorism related prosecution with respect to speech. However, these laws, first designed to combat terrorism, bled into other areas of criminal law.[35] Could it be that as post-9/11 society became conditioned to the possibility that speech itself can be a threat, that belief was readily transferred over into the realm of everyday communication, disagreement, and debate? It appears to have been appropriated (intentionally or not) by those seeking to control speech for other reasons. Today, a fool’s rude comment or a sincere disagreement with another’s moral choice can be interpreted by the hearer as a reportable ‘hate incident’ or a fireable offence.

In this climate, the church must adopt a posture of truth, love, and willingness to suffer. This article highlights the need to speak truth and to defend free speech. Because we serve the God of truth, this is not a mere option nor a right, but a Christian duty. At every level of society and for its good, Christians have a responsibility to promote the free exchange of ideas without repercussion. Furthermore, all of the church’s truth-telling must conform to the shape of Biblical love. That love, exemplified by Christ, was costly. At times it is the cost itself which commends the message. The head of the church was crucified, in part, because he chose to speak the truth. In so doing, he conquered. The religious authorities of Jerusalem tried to silence the apostles, but the apostles responded, ‘we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.’[36] Early church history indicates they each suffered for this stand. O’Donovan describes how the boldness of this young church impacted the Empire: ‘But, confronted with the community empowered by God’s speech, force could extinguish speech only at the cost of investing it with the dignity of martyrdom. It proved impossible in the event for Roman society to refuse an answer to the word that was addressed to it with this seriousness.’[37] May the church today exercise free speech with genuine fruitfulness by seeing speech not primarily as a right to assert but a duty to discharge in the cause of Christ-shaped love for the good of the world.

David Mitchell is a Canadian who is pastor of Connect Church in Fife, Scotland. He is currently researching a Masters degree in leadership in the New Testament .



[1] Jeffrey Howard, “Free Speech in the UK: it’s the business of parliament, not Ofcom, to judge what is ok to publish”, 26 Feb 2020 [accessed 7 Jun 2020], https://theconversation.com/free-speech-in-the-uk-its-the-business-of-parliament-not-ofcom-to-judge-what-is-ok-to-publish-132219#:~:text=The%20UK%20government%20recently%20announced,them%20if%20they%20don’t.

[2] Toby Young, “No sacred cows: Why is YouTube so afraid of free speech?”, The Spectator, 6 June 2020

[3] SP Bill 67: https://beta.parliament.scot/-/media/files/legislation/bills/current-bills/hate-crime-and-public-order-scotland-bill/introduced/bill-as-introduced-hate-crime-and-public-order-bill.pdf; Policy Memorandum: https://beta.parliament.scot/-/media/files/legislation/bills/current-bills/hate-crime-and-public-order-scotland-bill/introduced/policy-memorandum-hate-crime-and-public-order-scotland-bill.pdf

[4] Pekka Hallberg and Janne Virkkunen, Freedom of Speech and Information in Global Perspective, 1

[5] Malcolm Yarnell, “The Development Of Religious Liberty”, 133

[6] Hallberg and Virkkunen, 10

[7] ‘On the international level this human right is enshrined in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and, of course, in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)…’. Hallberg and Virkkunen, 4

[8] United Nations, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

[9] Ibid, 3

[10] Ibid, 151

[11] UK Government, “Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006”. [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/1/pdfs/ukpga_20060001_en.pdf, 3

[12] UK Government, “Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008” [Cited 26 Feb 2018], n.p. Online: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2008/4/part/5/crossheading/hatred-on-the-grounds-of-sexual-orientation

[13] Equality Coalition et. al, “Briefing Note: Defining public duties to tackle incitement to hatred whilst respecting free expression” [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: https://www.qub.ac.uk/home/media/Media,772866,en.pdf, 9

[14] Hannah Corcoran and Kevin Smith, “Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2015/16” [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/559319/hate-crime-1516-hosb1116.pdf, 4

[15] Ibid.

[16] BBC, Stu Peters: Manx Radio host suspended over Black Lives Matter comments, 5 Jun 2020, [Cited 7 Jun 2020] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-isle-of-man-52936980

[17] The Wellesley News, “Free Speech is Not Violated at Wellesley”, n.p. [Cited 27 Feb 2018.] Online: http://thewellesleynews.com/2017/04/12/free-speech-is-not-violated-at-wellesley/

[18] Jonathan Petre, “I called a trans boy a girl by mistake”, n.p. [Cited 27 Feb 2018] Online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5073511/Teacher-suspended-praising-pupil-using-wrong-gender.html

[19] The Rainbow Centre, a Wilfrid Laurier University campus group, cited by Aaron Hutchins, “What really happened at Wilfrid Laurier University”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: http://www.macleans.ca/lindsay-shepherd-wilfrid-laurier/

[20] David French, ” Anti-Free-Speech Radicals Never Give Up”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/free-speech-violations-supreme-court-patent-trademark-office-slants-southern-poverty-law-center-double-standard/ https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html

[21] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, “The coddling of the American mind”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018], Online: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

[22] Jordan Peterson cited in Dave Beatty,”McMaster debate with controversial professor Jordan Peterson disrupted by activists”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018.] Online: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/mcmaster-debate-with-controversial-professor-jordan-peterson-disrupted-by-activists-1.4031843

[23]George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018]. Online: http://orwell.ru/library/novels/Animal_Farm/english/efp_go

[24] John Rentoul, “Boris Johnson banned protest and no one noticed, not even him“, [Cited 7 Jun 2020] Online: https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/editors-letters/protest-george-floyd-demostration-ban-boris-johnson-priti-patel-police-coronavirus-a9552446.html

[25] Josh Dehaas, “Half of Canadian Universities fail at free speech”, n.p. [Cited 27 Fe 2018.] Online: http://www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/half-of-canadian-universities-fail-at-free-speech-report

[26] Ibid, 12

[27] Jessica Murphy, “Toronto professor Jordan Peterson takes on gender-neutral pronouns”, n.p. [Cited 27 Feb 2018] Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-37875695

[28] 1 Jn. 1:5, 7; Jn. 14:6

[29] E.g. Isa. 65:2

[30] Gen. 1:26-28

[31] Eph. 4:17-18

[32] Prov. 25:12; 27:17; 1 Kg. 20-21.  Cf. Howard Taylor, Human Rights, 81

[33] John Warwick Montgomery, “A Note from Our Editor: ‘Hate Speech’ “, n.p. [Accessed 26 Feb 2018]. Online: https://www.galaxie.com/article/gjct11-2-01?highlight=%22freedom%20of%20speech%22

[34] David French, ” When Speech Inspires Violence, Protect Liberty While Restoring Virtue”, n.p. [Cited 26 Feb 2018] Online: https://www.nationalreview.com/2017/06/steve-scalise-shooting-political-violence-no-excuse-restricting-political-speech-free-speech/

[35] Katharine Gelber, Free Speech after 9/11, 151.  [Cited 28 Feb 2018] Online: http://www.oxfordscholarship.com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198777793.001.0001/acprof-9780198777793

[36] Acts 4:20

[37] Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of Nations, 269