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The Philosophy of Free Speech

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis

For anyone paying attention, it should be obvious that the federal government and much of big tech has been trying—often successfully—to stifle free speech in America for some time. Most recently, Elon Musk has been the target, only because he took over Twitter and is allowing more free speech than the previous owners. This attack almost always comes from the left and is aimed against the right, but it can work either way. Those on the left complain when pornographic books are removed from public schools and public libraries, claiming that this is “book banning” and unconstitutional. But certainly not all speech should be unrestricted. In this case, children should not view sexualized material, since it is not age-appropriate. (The hawked LGBTQ material is inappropriate for anyone of age.) Yet, we should ask what worldview supports free speech as a cherished and objective value for a free society?

When discussing freedom of speech, Americans often hark back to the First Amendment to the Constitution (1787), which 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.

Strictly speaking, the Amendment only restricts “congress” from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion or “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Note that there is no “freedom of expression” in the First Amendment.” That is modern (and debauched) interpolation. The First Amendment document has words and ideas in mind, not effusions of unarticulated emotion. Thus, burning a flag is not “free speech.” But what assumptions undergirded this sterling pronouncement?

Whether one appeals to the First Amendment or not, if one values a society in which speech, press, and religion is not censored, one must logically assume several ideas.

1. There is such a thing as objective truth. This assumes a correspondence view of truth: a true statement corresponds to a reality outside itself. I defend this in Truth Decay (InterVarsity Press, 2000), perhaps one of my most important books (in my humble opinion). This is a claim of metaphysics and contrasts with social constructivism (or postmodernism) about truth.

2. Objective truth is worth knowing (and can be known) since it connects us with reality and allows for human flourishing. This is a value claim (axiology). Harry Frankfurt defends this in his little gem of a book, On Truth, although he doesn’t situation his claims within a Christian worldview. As J. P. Moreland wrote in Love Your God With All Your Mind:

This is why truth is so powerful. It allows us to cooperate with reality, whether spiritual or physical, and tap into its power. As we learn to think correctly about God, specific scriptural teachings, the soul, or other important aspects of a Christian world view, we are placed in touch with God and those realities. And we thereby gain access to the power available to us to live in the kingdom of God.

3. Rational exposition and analysis are the preferred modes for ascertaining objective truth. This is an ancient claim, made by the Greek philosophers and most subsequent philosophers. Jesus honored it by his use of argument in his ministry. See my book, On Jesus, to substantiate this. John Stuart Mill said it well in On Liberty.

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.

4. Therefore (a), open discourse is generally the best way to come to the truth of important matters.

5. Therefore (b), laws and cultural mores should honor open discourse and not stifle or prohibit it. This is the value of “the open marketplace of ideas,” an idea found increasingly unpopular.

The philosophies of Postmodernism and Critical Race Theory (which I discuss in Fire in the Streets) cannot support the objective value of freedom of speech. So, we should not be surprised at the many cancellations brought about by those holding these theories. As the philosophy necessary to support the value of the freedom of speech is undermined, Americans will lose their opportunities to state and defend their views. Inasmuch as this happens, America will further decline and cease to be what it should be: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

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