In 1789, the United States Congress ratified the Bill of Rights which made ten amendments to the Constitution. James Madison and many of the founding fathers proposed the amendments because they believed the original Constitution did not adequately protect human liberty. The first and most well-known amendment protects the freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of assembly and petition. It 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" (U.S. Bill of Rights). Freedom of speech essentially means having the right to speak without governmental restriction or censorship.
What is a biblical view on freedom of speech?
The United States is very proud of the concept of freedom of speech because it makes it a unique nation in comparison to most nations throughout history. Under many other governments people have been persecuted or punished for speaking freely if what they say does not align with the ideas of those in charge. In the United States, though, people have been encouraged to share their opinions and question the government when they feel change is necessary. However, recent debates over hate speech have caused Americans to question just how committed the nation is to the First Amendment and whether unlimited free speech is always a good thing.
Many of the founding fathers' ideas were greatly influenced by Christianity. Yet is freedom of speech biblical? At the beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, we learn from the story of Adam and Eve that God has given people free will. God tells Adam and Eve, "You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Genesis 2:16–17). God warns them that their actions have consequences, but still allows them to make a choice. Therefore, the Bible supports the idea that we have the freedom to say what we want to, but that what we say can have consequences.
Although the Bible does not outright advocate for or prohibit free speech, it does provide us with guidelines for what we should and should not say. These guidelines are rooted in the idea that sinful behavior leads to bondage whereas obedience to Christ leads to freedom (John 8:31–36; Galatians 5:1). On the one hand, the Bible discourages cursing, lying, deception, filthy language, slander, and any evil talk that tears others down (Exodus 20:7, 16; Leviticus 19:11; Ephesians 4:15, 25, 29; Colossians 3:8–9; Titus 3:2). This stands in blatant opposition to how free speech is interpreted by many people in the United States. Influential people often lie in order to win the appeal of an audience, some businesses use deception to gain more profit, entertainers use explicit language, and the porn industry twists reality.
Instead of using destructive language, the Bible encourages us to speak truthfully, build others up with our words, and use our mouths to praise and worship God (Ephesians 4:15, 29; 1 Chronicles 16:23–31). It also tells us to speak up for what is right. We see a great example of this in the story of queen Esther. Esther must save the Jewish people by going before the king and asking him to spare them even though he has not summoned her. It is against the law for her to speak to the king without his permission, but her cousin Mordecai encourages her by speaking the truth in love: "For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14).
So what is a good rule of thumb for knowing when to exercise your freedom of speech? Follow the advice laid out in Ephesians 4:29, "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear."
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