Several incidents have occurred recently at American colleges and universities that raise the question of where freedom of speech is headed today. Now let’s be clear. Not all speech is morally acceptable if we are serious about our Biblical commitments. Private Christian universities have good reason sometimes to create conditions for edifying and pure expression of faculty and students. In addition private schools also have the legal right to restrict the opposite kind of expression–I daresay, even the obligation. However public institutions have no legal right to restrict speech, and, I would argue very few situations in which such restriction would even be appropriate. We were reminded by John Stuart Mill that the best way to counter bad speech is to meet it with more speech–not less and not to stifle it. I am aware that I walk a fine line in advocating for free speech on public campuses while arguing for the right to circumscribe it on private Christian campuses–a problem I intend to address. But for now, I will confine my remarks to public settings.
The recent controversy over the speaking engagement of Anne Coulter at the University of California at Berkeley is a case in point. But so were the reprehensible attempts to cut off Charles Murray at Middlebury College, and several disinvitations to speakers, mainly conservative, in the past years, when some students insisted that they were dangerous and that students would not be “safe.” What is happening on these campuses and others, and seems to be a growing trend, is the tendency (1) for university administrations to kowtow to every objection from student groups to stymie ideas those students don’t like and (2) for student groups to act in increasingly totalitarian ways (I hesitate to use the word “fascist” for I could just as easily use something like “Stalinist”).
But if we really want to promote an exchange of ideas that will produce dialogue and movement toward resolution of many problems, we cannot afford to sanction such actions by university administrators and students.
The issue of speech at Christian colleges is much more subtle. A Christian college that takes the Bible seriously has an obligation to its students first to act as a Christian college in the sense that it follows Biblical principles in every element and aspect of the educational process and content. This is not about the whim of a single person or a group of individuals. It is about the integrity of an institution to be what it asserts it is. As for expressions of speech (or speech-acts in many cases), these are not exempt from the foundational principle that everything is subject to the rule of God as He has revealed Himself in special revelation. There are speech-acts outside the parameters of the good, right, and true and that have no educational value except some sort of titillation. The obvious culprits are pornography and obscenity. We can argue about precisely where the boundary is crossed from legitimate to illegitimate. But unless one cares nothing for the principle I mentioned above, no one would deny that a boundary can be and should be “there.” It is not like the old saw that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” as if all speech-acts were merely up for subjective preference. We can of course discuss and debate contentious issues, but we ought to do it in a (I will use the term deliberately) civilized way–with the highest standards of a civilization being determined by the Scriptures.
Either God is glorified or he is not. We will as Christians have to make decisions as to those objective boundaries that will create the conditions for that glorification and for the flourishing of Christians in their whole lives.
We can support free speech at public institutions but this does not mean that Christians must always follow the whole way with the world of academia.