Are their limits to free speech? The pope seems to think so. According to his recent comments in regards to the Charlie Hebdo incident in Paris, he clarified what he meant by these limits: “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”
I’m always concerned when I hear comments made by prominent world voices about the need to restrict free speech. I’m especially concerned when it comes from someone like the pope who of all people, as a religious leader, should understand the value of safe-guarding this most fundamental of natural rights.
First of all, who gets to define what are provoking or insulting statements? If I criticize, let’s say, a point of doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, should that be illegal? I personally have strong religious and political opinions (so does the pope for that matter). Of course there are those who disagree with me. They might even criticize or insult me. But that’s fine. If I can’t take a proverbial blow or two, that’s my problem.
I have to allow others to say or write things I don’t endorse or agree with so that I too can continue to say and write whatever I desire. This is common sense. I don’t even understand wanting to be in a position where I can dictate to someone else what they can and can’t say. That waxes a bit too on the tyrannical side for me.
As a missionary I bear a message that I feel is relevant and proclaim it to those who I feel need to hear it. Since my conscience outweighs considerations of man’s laws, I would continue to do this whether it was “legal” or not. I’m thankful for a heritage of western democratic ideals that have thus far given me the legal right to exercise free speech. But the right to say what I want to say is a right no one can take from me…or you.
A subtler argument for limiting free speech is the matter of a statement being labeled “hate speech.” Again, who gets to define what is hateful? There are mean, nasty, and downright evil-spirited folks out there. I hear and read comments that turn my stomach by their implications. I wish people wouldn’t say certain things and I cringe at the hate that drips off of the words and resides in the hearts of those who say them. But that doesn’t mean I should make it my mission to keep them from saying it.
I don’t have to listen or agree. I can even criticize and rebuke. But should I be able to shut down someone’s ability to speak their mind? I don’t think so. Not unless, that is, I’m willing to be be silenced as well.
Are their limits to free speech? I would argue no. When it comes to inciting violence or criminal activity, that no longer falls under the purview of what I consider free speech. According to the generally accepted theory of natural rights, my freedom ends when it infringes upon another’s freedom. A call for violence obviously has the potential to hinder another’s right to live and express his freedom.
The irony here is that the pope also made tongue-in-cheek comments about punching someone if they insulted his mother. He, of course, then quickly clarified that he doesn’t endorse the violence that occurred in Paris. But let me get this straight. He wants to limit my free speech, but at the same time he can “joke” about assaulting someone for theirs?
This whole issue is not about the pope. His comments are simply indicative of a disturbing global trend toward limiting the individual’s right to free speech. Once that ball starts rolling, it can go to a bad place quickly. And historically it’s a very difficult precedent to reverse. So let’s not go there! Instead, let’s continue to say what we think, proclaim what we believe, and graciously allow others to do the same.