By David Hegg
In the recent Supreme Court decision in 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court, by a 6-3 vote, ruled that the First Amendment forbids government from forcing web designer Lorie Smith to say things she does not believe even when such speech is in the form of a work product. The court went on to say that the First Amendment protects both an LGBT website designer and a religious website designer like Ms. Smith.
In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch put it this way: “The First Amendment envisions the United States as a rich and complex place where all persons are free to think and speak as they wish, not as the government demands.”
Of course, we all agree and appreciate that the First Amendment forms an essential part of the foundation of a free and democratic society. And, if we’re honestly viewing what speech has become in our national conversations and in everyday life, we also have to agree freedom of opinion and expression poses great harm if and when it is unrestrained. Yet, the amendment clearly states that government cannot generally be the restraining power. This being the case, what are we to do about the increasing amount of divisive, hate-filled, deceitful speech that has become so commonplace in our day?
The answer is found in this maxim: Internal compliance is always preferable to outward compulsion. Simply put, we as a people have to match the freedom we have to think and speak as we wish, with a self-controlling wisdom and love for fellow human travelers on the road of life. The only successful restraint on free speech is self-restraint. And this kind of self-restraint is the fruit of an ethical system that believes loving my neighbors rather than seeking to destroy them or their reputation is actually beneficial to the overall welfare of our society.
When the framers of our nation’s founding documents put the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights together, they did so influenced greatly by their ethical system. And while it has been ably demonstrated that America was never a “Christian Nation,” it is true that our founding fathers did see all of life through a theistic lens. That is, they infused our democratic system with a moral philosophy carried over from England often referred to as the Judeo-Christian system of laws. They knew that self-control and love of neighbor, not governmental power, would have to play the dominant part in individual life so that a free speech society could evade the twin monsters of societal anarchy on the one hand, and governmental tyranny on the other.
Today, we are seeing the result of a diminished ethic of love for neighbor, and especially love for enemies. It is interesting to me that, while many today have determined religion to be a scourge on society, it is still true that parents tell their children to be nice to other people, to refrain from hurting others, and to do what they can to help those around them. Parents want their children to grow up to be honorable adults who can make positive contributions to society, and be those who “build up” rather than “tear down.” And regardless of why parents feel this way, the truth is that such desires spring from a common sense that there is right and wrong, and we want our kids to do and be and promote right.
And in every case, “right” starts with self-restraint. Yes, we are champions of the freedom to think and speak as we please. But the other side of the coin must be that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Freedom is just as much about what we can’t do as what we shouldn’t do. We are free but freedom comes with great accountability to use that freedom for good, to help not hurt, to persuade not pummel, and most importantly, to shut up when what we’re about to say is dishonorable.
Perhaps we can learn from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Colossae. He wrote, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
And maybe we should add a quote that has been variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt.”
Whatever your ethical system, whatever your creed or personal philosophy, our precious freedom of opinion and speech must be fenced in by our character, and our character shaped less by a selfish desire to blast away, and more by love and respect for those around us.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.