Free Speech vs. "Hate Speech"

Karen VanTil Gushta Ph.D.

America has, of all the nations, valued free speech throughout its history. Yet today, speech vigilantes want to censor speech—disallowing anything they deem “hate speech.”

Nearly 400 years ago, one of the world’s greatest writers, John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, wrote a lesser known essay against censorship called the Areopagitica. Milton was a Christian who, like John Calvin, was thoroughly educated in the Classics, and his title is a reference to the Greek Areopagus, the highest court of Greece, where the apostle Paul gave his defense against the charge of bringing foreign gods to Athens. Although Milton supported the Calvinist Presbyterians who controlled Parliament, he was opposed to the Licensing Order that Parliament passed on June 16, 1643. The order would have required authors to submit their work to government censors for approval prior to publication. As Milton correctly understood and pointed out, such precensorship was tantamount to state control of thought.

The following line from the Areopagitica is often quoted:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloister'd vertue, unexercis'd & unbreath'd, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortall garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

In other words, any worthwhile idea should be able to stand up to examination and opposition.

Milton’s argument against censorship is said to have laid the foundation for both British and American guarantees of free speech. Some now want to dispense with those guarantees, however, saying that so-called hate speech should not be protected under the First Amendment. 

As the television special by D. James Kennedy Ministries, Profits of Hate, points out, some—the Southern Poverty Law Center in particular—are profiting greatly by accusing certain groups of being “hate groups” engaged in “hate speech.” The SPLC has a regular “Hatewatch” update on its website that lists the activities of Christian organizations it accuses of being “anti-LGBT.” Included are the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Family Association, Family Research Council, and others that hold to the Biblical understanding of human sexuality and oppose the transgender push to accept and normalize transgender and homosexual behavior.   

College and university campuses, for decades the citadels of political correctness, have recently become engrossed in the fight against “hate speech.” The headline cases this year of student protests against Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California, Berkeley, and against Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont are only the latest instances of an ongoing trend. Last year, on May 26, 2016, Newsweek.com ran an article titled, “The Battle Against ‘Hate Speech’ on College Campuses Gives Rise to a Generation that Hates Speech.” The article chronicled the trend on college campuses to restrict certain categories of speech, noting that more than 200 American colleges and universities now “have speech codes that ‘unambiguously impinge upon free speech.” As author Nina Burleigh describes, “American college campuses are starting to resemble George Orwell’s Oceania with its Thought Police, or East Germany under the Stasi. College newspapers have been muzzled and trashed, and students are disciplined or suspended for ‘hate speech,’ while exponentially more are being shamed and silenced on social media by their peers. Professors quake at the possibility of accidentally offending any students and are rethinking syllabi and restricting class discussions to only the most anodyne topics.”

Additionally,  wrote Burleigh, “As students are labeling more and more words as hate speech, demanding more trigger warnings and shouting down both commencement speakers and comedians, the censorship flashpoints can be sorted into three topics: sex, race and Donald Trump.”

Student angst over the current president and identity politics of race and gender is spilling over into the broader culture. Former presidential candidate Howard Dean tweeted that “Hate speech is not protected by the first amendment,” referring to Ann Coulter’s upcoming event at UC Berkeley. He was soundly trounced on Twitter and corrected by Politifact, which cited the First Amendment, Supreme Court decisions, and law professor Michael Herz of Cardozo Law, who stated that “‘hate speech’ is constitutionally protected in the United States.”  Nevertheless, when two men were killed after they confronted a man screaming anti-Muslim slurs in Portland, Oregon, the mayor Ted Wheeler echoed Mr. Dean and declared, “hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.” In addition, Wheeler wanted what he termed “alt-right demonstrations” in his city to be blocked, and he went on Facebook to call on federal officials to revoke a permit for a “Trump Free Speech Rally” scheduled for June 4 at the downtown federal plaza in Portland. He also requested that the organizers cancel another planned rally, a “March Against Sharia,” that was scheduled for June 10, but had not yet been given a permit.

In its report on the Portland incident, the Washington Post cited the Southern Poverty Law Center’s description of Jeremy Christian, the man who was charged in the incident, as “someone who holds racist and extremist beliefs.” The article stated, “According to the hate watch group, Christian [the alleged killer] was seen at an earlier free-speech rally held by the same organizers. A photo shows him giving the Nazi salute.” A different report indicated that Christian had in the past denounced both Christianity and Judaism and supported Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein in the 2016 election.

A cardinal belief of Christianity is that “God is love.” He expressed His love for the world by giving His only Son to die for sinners so that those who would believe in Him would not be condemned for their sins, but could receive the gift of eternal life.  As Christians, we think of the Bible as God’s “love letter” to us

Yet, the Bible also speaks of “hate,” especially in the context of relationships. Early on we read of the problems in Jacob’s family because of hate. We read in Genesis that “Esau hated Jacob,” and because the Lord saw that Leah “was hated,” He gave her children. Joseph’s brother hated him “and could not speak peacefully to him.” Later, they feared he would reciprocate and pay them back for their hatred.

But God instructed His people not to reciprocate hate for hate. He told the children of Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy,” (Lev. 19:2). Hate and holiness cannot abide in the same heart. Therefore God said, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:17-18).

Clearly as children of God, we cannot harbor hate in our hearts toward others, even those who would take away our right of free speech and silence us for holding to Biblical positions on moral issues. Those who accuse Christians of “hate speech” may be profiting financially and even in the court of public opinion for a time, but God is the ultimate judge of our speech. Therefore, let us heed Paul’s exhortation to Titus and be careful to use “sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Titus 2:8).