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Freedom of Speech - a University Challenge

Peter Ladd

Freedom of speech in red and middle of page

Your starter for 10 this week: what do these two groups of people have in common?

  1. People who believe in the abolition of the monarchy

  2. People who believe in the priority of biological sex over an innate sense of gender

At first glance, the two would appear to have little in common; the former cause is traditionally associated with the left, and the latter (generally) with the right. The former are more likely to be young, and the latter more likely to be older (and indeed, wiser!). But if you’ve been following the news this week, you will have seen that both have attracted headlines around having their freedom of speech curtailed.

At the King’s Coronation last Saturday, 6 protestors from the anti-monarchy group Republic were arrested in Trafalgar Square for peaceful protest. The Metropolitan Police have subsequently conveyed their regret about the episode, although Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to condemn them for their actions.

Meanwhile, up in Oxford this week, we witnessed the latest case of an attempt to shut down gender-critical beliefs amongst university students. The Oxford Union is - depending on your point of view - either an organisation with an illustrious history which has attracted some of the finest speakers and debaters in the world, or an utter cesspit representing the most toxic of student politics (and I say that as a former member!).

What certainly isn’t in doubt, though, is their willingness to engage with all manner of controversial figures in a robust exchange of ideas. This has led to invites to speak being issued to the likes of Marine LePen in recent years amid large protests from the wider, supposedly more liberal student body.

In the latest case, the Union is under attack from the Student Union (the two are not to be confused!) for inviting well-known academic and philosopher Kathleen Stock to speak. Stock has risen to prominence in recent years for being ‘gender-critical’, which is the belief that biological sex actually matters, rather than someone’s internal, untestable belief that they are male or female (regardless of whether or not it aligns with their biology). In short, views shared by most of the country…

Stock has repeatedly spoken in favour of human rights for transgender people, but has rightly noted the ways in which gender ideology is impacting the rights of women, and putting biological males in female spaces. These views resulted in her being hounded out of her place of employment, the University of Sussex, amid threats of physical violence. She had been advised by police to install CCTV cameras at her home and be escorted round campus by bodyguards.

Her case is not an isolated one. Many will have noted the levels of vitriol thrown at JK Rowling in recent years for similar views. The Harry Potter author regularly receives death threats, and on one occasion had the location of her house deliberately leaked publicly by trans activists, despite the safety implications. Up and down the country, students are shouting for hitherto respected figures to be ‘no-platformed’ (an attempt to split hairs by people who claim they are indeed in favour of free speech, but don’t think that unfashionable views should be given a platform on which they can be amplified).

It was fascinating reading the response of the Junior Common Room (the undergraduates) of Christ Church College. Having called Stock a transphobe for her concerns around biological males in women’s spaces and for suggesting people with gender dysphoria might first benefit from counselling, they then state: “Transphobes should not feel welcome in Oxford, or in this college.”

That struck me as particularly chilling; if the debacle in Scotland around gender reform showed one thing, it was surely that the public do not support transgender ideology or self-identification. And here we are, with a student body suggesting that the majority of the population should not be welcome in ‘their’ city, unless, like in Orwellian dystopia, they joyfully affirm that 2+2 is 5. A more stark expression of a desire to limit free speech it is difficult to imagine.

And yet…when it comes to other causes, whether it be the abolition of the monarchy campaigning against climate change or protesting on behalf of Black Lives Matter, teachers or the NHS, people who may not want free-speech for their gender-critical peers will then be objecting if there are attempts to stop their protest (even if that protest is disruptive). My Twitter timeline on Saturday morning was awash with some people who are very vocal on trans rights (and suppressing free speech there) comparing the UK to North Korea for the clamp-down on free speech on Coronation Day.

It turns out that everyone wants free speech when they are the ones being forbidden from saying something.

How then, as Christians, are we to think about the topic of free speech? I am cautious in not wanting to go beyond what Scripture says; It seems to me that the principle of a right to freedom of speech is far more rooted in early 19th century American politics than it is in the Bible. But here are three broad principles as we begin to mull over what a Christian response might be:

1. We should not just expect free speech

The Bible never suggests that we should always expect to have freedom of speech as Christians; in fact, it is quite the opposite. The life Jesus promises us is one marked by persecution.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20)

Jesus expects our values and the world’s values to clash. He expects the world to look at what we have to say, and to not like it. He even expects the world to hate us and to persecute us. What he does not say he expects is a right to freedom of speech!

Of course, there are plenty of examples within Scripture of people whose freedom of speech as believers was supposedly curtailed. We might think of the response to the disciples when they first tried to preach the gospel after Jesus’ ascension. After Peter and John have healed the lame beggar in Acts 4, the Sanhedrin are amazed and disturbed at their courage and their miraculous power, and attempt to silence them, warning them not to speak about Jesus any more. Peter and John’s response is instructive to us today:

“Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”” (Acts 4:18-20).

If there are attempts to prevent us from speaking God’s truth, we are to listen to God, rather than to man, and to keep speaking. This feels pertinent at the moment on matters of sexuality and gender, where there are such attempts, through proposed Conversion Therapy legislation which doesn’t simply look to outlaw abusive practices (which we all oppose, and which are actually already outlawed!) but which overreaches by seeking to criminalise teaching or pastoral guidance in line with normative Christian teaching (such as a call to celibacy; this is seen as ‘suppressing’ sexuality). There have even been suggestions within Scotland that parents of children who are questioning their gender could have their children removed from them if they do not immediately affirm their new gender identity.

2. God’s design is for people to speak

God made us as beings who communicate! He has given us the gifts of voices and language so that we can speak to one another and to him. When Jesus appears announcing the Kingdom of God and restoring everything which has gone wrong, as part of his healings, he gives a voice to people who are mute.

“[Jesus] looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.” (Mark 7:34-35)

Although Scripture says plenty about how the tongue can be used for evil, the ability to speak is part of God’s good design for humanity. In the Bible, we see that God does not want anyone to be without a voice.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,

for the rights of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly;

defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

(Proverbs 31:8-9)

God calls the powerful to speak on behalf of the powerless, so that everyone is represented in some way. It is a small leap from there to suggest that the ideal would be for the voiceless to actually be able to speak for themselves.

We also recognise that if we have the ability to speak, part of “loving our neighbour as ourselves” is giving to others who lack that same ability.

For free speech to work, it has to work for all, in a society where people are debated, not silenced and effectively told they shouldn’t exist. And that means that as Christians, we might have to put up with things we don’t like said, in return for being able to say things ourselves; after all, the Gospel, although good news to us, is downright offensive to those who are perishing, telling them that they are sinners, need saving, and can only get it from Jesus!

3. Our speech is to be gracious and good

It is one thing to have the ability to speak. But as Christians, we are called to speak (and to persuade and inspire others to speak) in a particular way: with truth and with grace (or as some people call it, ‘convicted civility’).

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29)

Speech is designed to be for the good of others; it is not to be cruel or malicious, or to tear people down. That does not mean that it never criticises or rebukes or challenges; but criticism and rebuke and challenge are not for the sake of building up ourselves and helping ourselves to feel haughty, but to build up the person receiving it.

Paul writes elsewhere, in a passage about speaking to non-Christians who have a different set of values to us:

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” (Colossians 4:6)

We know we are to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13), being distinct and being flavoursome to the world around us; this will naturally happen if we are speaking God’s word to others. But we are also to do it in a way which is “full of grace”, not speaking down to others or shouting at them, but respectfully, as fellow human beings made in the image of God. Above all, we can do it by being rooted in the gospel message of grace, recognising that once, we were ourselves not unlike the non-Christians we speak to, but have only been saved by God’s generous gift.

At CARE, we do believe in free speech. We believe that everyone has worth and value and a voice which should be heard. But in everything we say and do, we want to imitate Jesus Christ, the one who brought “truth and grace” (John 1:17), and the one who “committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9)

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Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech and expression are vital, democratic liberties. As Christians, we should uphold them for the benefit of all people.

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