This article was originally published on Advocates for Truth under the title “Freedom of Speech, Censorship, and the Bible.”
This month has seen many debates surrounding the topic of free speech. Many social media platforms have suspended or banned accounts related to Donald Trump. Likewise, Amazon Web Services has severed ties with Parler, a social media platform dedicated to free speech. By refusing to host Parler, Amazon essentially shut down this website until they could find an alternative. Google and Apple also took down the Parler app from their mobile app store. Many conservatives had been turning to Parler because of censorship by Facebook, Twitter, etc. As a result, many Christians and conservatives have declared these actions to be an assault on free speech. How should Christians think about free speech and censorship? What does the Bible say about it?
What is Free Speech?
The First Amendment to the Constitution states,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
But when we are dealing with politics and the public sphere, what constitutes “speech”? According to the Constitution Center,
The Supreme Court has interpreted “speech” and “press” broadly as covering not only talking, writing, and printing, but also broadcasting, using the Internet, and other forms of expression. The freedom of speech also applies to symbolic expression, such as displaying flags, burning flags, wearing armbands, burning crosses, and the like.
Of course, this would also include things like social media posts. However, this does not mean that any form of expression is protected by the First Amendment. Notable exceptions include:
- Speech that is considered to have “low” First Amendment value. This includes speech such as defamation, threats, fighting words, obscenity, child pornography, commercial advertising, etc.
- Restricting the speech of some government officials. For example, a military officer can’t leak classified information (with certain exceptions for whistleblowers).
- Content-neutral restrictions. For example, if a protest blocks traffic or poses a safety hazard, such speech can be regulated because it is regulated without respect to the content itself. So long as the rules apply equally, then some of these types of restrictions have been allowed.
One important point in understanding the First Amendment is who it applies to. In short, the First Amendment was put in place to limit the power of government to restrict speech. The Constitution Center says,
Although the First Amendment says “Congress,” the Supreme Court has held that speakers are protected against all government agencies and officials: federal, state, and local, and legislative, executive, or judicial. The First Amendment does not protect speakers, however, against private individuals or organizations, such as private employers, private colleges, or private landowners. The First Amendment restrains only the government.
Thus, private companies like Facebook or Twitter would not generally be subject to the same limitations put on government concerning free speech. Likewise, users of Facebook and Twitter have not historically been given First Amendment protections from content moderation done by those companies on their own platforms.
What Does the Bible Say About Speech?
In Scripture, words carry great power. It was through words that God created the universe (Genesis 1:3; Psalm 33:6, 9; Hebrews 11:3). And it is through words that God has revealed himself to us (Numbers 12:6, Hebrews 1:1). These words and events have been recorded and faithfully passed down throughout the generations in Scripture to be an accurate representation of who God is, what he has said, and what he has done in history (2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:19-21).
Our words also have power. Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Many other Scriptures point to the power that our words can have (Proverbs 12:18, 15:4, 16:24, 25:11; James 3:5-8). Because of this, we are told that we will be accountable for our words. “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Likewise, Christians are told on numerous occasions to be cautious in our speech and to choose words that are truthful, loving, and edifying (Ephesians 4:15, 25, 29; Colossians 3:8-9, 4:6).
Speech plays a pivotal role in the Christian life, both publicly and privately. It is often by our speech that we give praise to God (Psalm 34:1, 71:14-15; Colossians 3:17), proclaim the gospel (Acts 19:8, Romans 10:14, Ephesians 6:19), and declare the truth of God’s Word (Proverbs 8:6-7, 2 Corinthians 4:2, 2 Timothy 2:15). These are essential elements of the Christian life that we are commanded to do no matter what.
How Does the Bible Apply to Free Speech?
The Bible itself doesn’t directly apply its principles on words and speech to the political principle of free speech. However, this doesn’t mean that Christians don’t have a vested interest in the subject.
First, Christians must recognize that not all speech is created equal. Words can either be wise or foolish, edifying or destructive, moral or immoral, bring blessing or cursing. Even though God gives us the ability to say any words that we choose, this does not mean that we ought to say whatever we want, whenever we want. Scripture is clear that the audience, content, place, timeliness, and reason for speaking (who, what, where, when, why) should all factor into our choice of words. This principle is also reflected in our political laws. Although we are given great latitude in our speech under the First Amendment, certain speech that could lead to harm (like defamation, threats, etc.) is usually restricted or censored.
Second, freedom of speech is strongly connected to religious liberty. As the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty notes, “Religious sharing is closely tied with the First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly. This includes both public expressions of faith, as well as the ability to discuss doctrine and specific beliefs with those of other faiths.” Thus, as Christians, we should recognize that freedom of speech is a good thing because it directly ties into our freedom to openly share the gospel, worship God, and declare his truth to a watching world.
Tensions Between the Bible, the First Amendment, and Society
Increasingly, Christians are running into situations where declaring the truth of God’s Word (particularly on issues dealing with gender and sexuality) is deemed offensive or “hate speech.” This is something that Christians should take seriously.
We must realize that the truth of the gospel and many of God’s commands will be offensive to the world. As Jesus said, the world “hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil.” (John 7:7). The world will likewise hate us because we do not belong to the world but to Christ (John 15:19). Christians cannot let potential restrictions or threats of retaliation be a deterrent to what God has clearly commanded us. To this end, Christians should seek to uphold liberal free speech laws which place relatively few restrictions on public speech.
At the same time, Christians must also realize that words spoken in hatred, in anger, or with carelessness can lead to genuine harm, whether physical or emotional. Just because we have the right to say something, that doesn’t mean that we should always say what is on our minds. Our words must be loving, gracious, kind, timely, truthful, and wise. Ultimately, our words must reflect our Lord and Savior in how he would address any particular situation.
What About Social Media Censorship?
This is a complicated political question, one on which Christians might disagree.
On one hand,
- The ability to moderate content on your own website can be viewed as a crucial aspect of free speech. Ultimately, Twitter, Facebook, Google, etc. are private companies, not the government. Those who use their services sign a contract (usually called “Terms of Service”) in which they agree to abide by the companies policies, including what speech is allowed or not allowed. To force them to post content against their values can be viewed as compelled speech against their conscience, something the First Amendment generally protects.
- Additionally, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (47 U.S. Code § 230) gives “interactive computer services” like Facebook, Twitter, etc. broad protection from what its users post. For example, if someone posts illegal speech (like a death threat) on Facebook, then Facebook cannot be treated as the publisher of that material and thus could not be held liable. In accordance with this, Section 230 also gives interactive computer services protection from liability against “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.” In other words, Section 230 gives the platform legal protection to make good-faith efforts to restrict or moderate content on its website that either the platform or the user might consider objectionable.
On the other hand,
- Section 230 was originally written, in part, to give companies and parents tools to restrict content that might come into contact with children. Thus, some argue that Section 230 does not give interactive computer services like Facebook, Twitter, etc. an unlimited ability to moderate content on their platforms but merely protects them from liability from what its users post. Even the section which protects the ability to moderate (Section 230(c)(2)) only protects “good-faith” efforts to moderate content, not all efforts. These companies should not be allowed to moderate their content such that they violate other anti-discrimination laws.
- These social media companies are so big that they resemble modern-day public squares where speech is given greater protections than they might otherwise be given on private property. One court case (Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins) upheld additional free speech rights given under the California Constitution for speech exercised on some private property (like a shopping center) because of the public nature of the location. Similarly, since the Internet and social media websites often function as modern day public forums, its users should be given similar protections against censorship for their free speech.
Regardless of which side you fall on, we can recognize that such companies all have a worldview. Despite what they might claim, none of them operate as a completely neutral platform. How Facebook defines hate speech might be different from how the Supreme Court defines it or how Scripture would define it. That being the case, we shouldn’t be surprised when Christian or conservative voices are censored. Nevertheless, if they claim to be operating as a “neutral” platform, we can rightly call them out for their hypocrisy.
Free Speech is a bedrock principle of American society and something that Christians should care about. Free speech gives us the ability to share the gospel, worship God, and proclaim the truth without fear of retaliation by the government. Whether or not we have this freedom does not determine whether we do these things, but it can change how we do them. Conversely, having free speech shouldn’t be an opportunity to abuse it. Christians must always let our words be “gracious, seasoned with salt so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).