I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the price of free speech.

Naturally, since my thoughts are known only to me and God (and sometimes my wife), those thoughts are fairly free.

As it happens, however, there are some thoughts you are no longer allowed to have in certain places. Technically you can have those thoughts, but you can now be arrested for having them. More on that in a future post.

The term free speech in America refers to the Constitution. Part of the first amendment says, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.”

This does not mean you can say anything you want any time you want anywhere you want. The famous exception often used to illustrate limitations: “You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.”

That always made me wonder if you could yell “fire” in an uncrowded theater when there was no fire, but I never tried it. However if you try it (which I am not recommending) please let me know how it turns out.

In any event, falsely causing public panic through the use of words is against the law. There are legal limits to free speech, all for the public good.

Free speech means only that you can speak freely. It does not mean “without charge” as in “there is no free lunch.”  Very often there is a high cost to free speech. Just ask Martin Luther King Jr.

Speaking freely

When I was around middle-school age, I decided that no one should call me by my middle name. I wasn’t quite a “boy named Sue,” but it was close enough.

So I kind of get it when a child is willing to fight over being called a particular name. What I don’t kind of get is when an adult is willing to fight for that cause. By the time I got to high school, my friends and I were sufficiently mature to withstand the slings and arrows of name calling.

Who, then, decides what you can speak freely and what you can’t?

gold Apple iPhone 6s displaying Twitter logo

In one well known case it was Twitter personnel who decided. According to “The Twitter Files,” they made speech decisions like that every day and often multiple times a day.

Were these people moral giants or philosophy savants? No, they were political watchdogs, and it seems they often took directions from federal employees. Either a name or a statement could trigger the removal of a tweet, perhaps even the deletion of an account.

None of that stopped anyone from saying what they wanted to say, but it did keep them from saying it to a particular audience. If Twitter had said openly, “We only support messaging that agrees with our point of view,” that would be fine. But they held themselves up as a place of free speech when they weren’t.

This is known legally as “content-based regulation” if it is carried out by a government. In fact that very kind of blocking of free speech happened in Gilbert, Arizona, where Do Good U was born. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Town of Gilbert lost.

Free to die

My point is that free speech in America can be and often is limited by ordinary people with a particular agenda. It can also be limited by people who don’t like what they think you might say.

Recently a federal judge was invited by a politically conservative group to speak to their members at Stanford. His talk was, to put it kindly, disrupted. Protesters did not allow him to speak freely.

There is some irony in this. Reuters reported that “The event was derailed by student protesters who said [Judge] Duncan has taken positions that threatened the rights of LGBTQ people, immigrants, Black voters, women and others.”

The protestors did not threaten the rights of the judge, they violated them.

To Stanford’s credit, a letter of apology was sent to Judge Duncan from the president and the dean of the law school.

This event reminded me of Stephen. He was an early Christian leader who was falsely arrested and accused before Jewish leaders. When he spoke in his own defense, everything was fine until he called them a “stiff necked” people.

When he followed that by saying he saw the heavens opened and Jesus at the right hand of God, “they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.”

Ancient Israel didn’t have, as far as I know, a law protecting free speech. Still, Stephen spoke freely. The price? His life.

Free to speak

In America free speech is the law of the land. That does not mean that individuals or groups will not try to “abridge” your speech. You may even be “canceled.” Often others try to create a louder voice or a more compelling message.

Wikipedia lists, for instance, 106 pages for LGBT advocacy groups. They also list 70 pages for “Organizations that oppose LGBT rights in the United States.” And that is just one political issue. Add them all together and there are literally hundreds of political advocacy groups in the U.S., speaking for and against every issue.

The beauty of this is you have free speech. The beast of it is everyone else has it, too.

Because there is a cost to speak freely, perhaps a dear cost, I’d like to commend a wise statement to you. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt.

That advice comes from the Bible, and it is for everyone who wants to do good.

Use your free speech for the benefit of others, not just to win an argument or (worse) belittle someone else. Choose your words wisely, then deliver them with grace and good flavor. Always let them be truth.

And guard your heart, because the mouth speaks what the heart is filled with.

Free speech is an amazing gift. Use it for good.

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