Speech: Its Value and Its Limits

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.

19 thoughts on “Speech: Its Value and Its Limits”

  1. So you believe that obscenity and pornography are the only speech that a Christian University should restrict?

    So when cedarville uninvited Shane Claiborne because of his views on pacifism then you probably condemned that right?

    1. … When cedarville uninvited Shane Claiborne from speaking because he’s a pacifist… That was my example. I believe it was 2008. You can Google it if you don’t remember.

      1. Well, if we’re going to follow the story all the way through to the end, Cedarville had him on campus to speak at the G92 conference on immigration in 2011. Overall, I think Cedarville does a respectful job of bringing in a diverse array of speakers, though I should clarify that “diverse” is probably more narrowly defined than others would have it. Regardless, though, it hardly matters that much on Cedarville’s campus because it’s a private institution. What is happening on public campuses is far more concerning, as Dr. Clauson has already pointed out. Anymore, “diversity” only seems to exist when the speaker approaches the topic from a decidedly left-wing position. If that’s what the students want to hear, then good for them. But, to think that mass riots are the appropriate response to an opposing viewpoint is hardly the way to proceed, regardless of your political affiliation and regardless of the opposing viewpoint.

      2. I believe Dr. Clauson was using obscenity and pornography as obvious examples of what a Christian university would restrict. i don’t think he intended to say it was limited to just that.

        As for Shane Claiborne… if I recall, the issues involved were different from pacifism. Maybe I am remembering wrong, but I think the big issue was over his advocation for civil disobedience. I believe I remember something about him supporting people who squatted/trespassed on private property not being used by the owner, etc. Also, as I understand it, that G92 immigration conference ended up going along those lines itself, that Christians should protect illegals etc, so hardly surprising he made it to CU for that venue.

        Anyway, that was what I heard. Could be remembering wrong, though. Been a while.

      3. The Shane Claiborne incident is different in a very important respect. Like a a person preaching in a church, a chapel speaker is implicitly sanctioned as speaking with an authoritative voice backed by administration and board. We assume and require that any speaker share those values since he does speak in a sense as a “voice” for the university–unlike a speaker outside chapel such as someone not a Christian talking about economic issues or a Christian speaking about some other issue.

        I remember it quite well. And to think there was somehow something sinister about the disinvitation is wrong. Claiborne in no way shares the theological core of CU. To speak in chapel would send a message that he did.

  2. “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.”

    Self-delusions are the worse kind.

    Special revelation must be filtered through human eyes and minds for it to make any sense at all. No so-called Christian college–Cedarville, BJU, and other peer institutions–can therefore properly follow “biblical principles.” Rather, it is following HUMAN interpretations of the text, as the text itself cannot interpret itself.
    These interpretations often vary, depending on which way the ideological wind blows. That is why doctrinal statements change, as do statements regarding creation and so on.

    The Word of God may be timeless, but people aren’t; and it is PEOPLE making the rules here (and hiding behind the Bible in doing so).

    When Cedarville limits as you say “expressions of speech” it is using those HUMAN interpretations in order to justify it. Why not be honest already and admit it? What is the point of deluding oneself and deceiving others?

    So basically Cedarville is like UC Berkeley is like Middlebury–at least in this small way (the other two are obviously much more elite institutions). The difference is that Cedarville is deceptively claiming that it is doing so based on some higher principle, but the reality is that it is no different than any other institution using human judgement to limit free speech.

    What is worse: limiting free speech by being honest about it, or limiting free speech while being (intellectually) dishonest about it? I’d say the first.

  3. “The obvious culprits are pornography and obscenity.”

    Objective standards for cultural values, please. Where does God define those (human) words?

    Or are we going to do an Edwin Meese here and pass the buck already?

    Are you starting to understand?

    1. Well Jeff, I see you don’t share the idea that there are religious limits to what ought to be conveyed in a class by a private university. My examples were pornography and obscenity. I do not believe at all that the proposed policy would eliminate clear educational materials–clinical descriptions in science texts, statues used for historical purposes, even somewhat “disturbing” documentary materials related to, say, the Holocaust or some other catastrophe or atrocity, for educational purposes.

      And, yes the standards for aesthetics, morality and so forth are most certainly NOT merely subjective but have moral boundaries. Finding them might be difficult but they exist. I do not live in an anarchic universe. God has something to say about those and everything else, directly or indirectly.

      1. Shouldn’t a Christian historian who teaches the Holocaust be able to make those decisions, instead of having those decisions being made by Loren Reno or someone without proper historical training (Tom Mach doesn’t count–he’s an Americanist)?

        Cedarville is no longer a university. It looks more and more like a glorified homeschool, complete with controlling and overbearing parents.

        You know why they call them “helicopter parents”? Because they HOVER.

        “And, yes the standards for aesthetics, morality and so forth are most certainly NOT merely subjective but have moral boundaries. Finding them might be difficult but they exist.”

        Where? If they are so important, then why the difficulty in finding them? If God wanted us to know what they were, God would have made it clear for us to find them and to understand them, like God has done with other bits of information.

        “Most certainly NOT merely subjective”? Please stop embarrassing yourself. You are just making claims out of clear blue sky (least that is what the color looks like down here, in God’s country). That is your right, but you really look foolish in doing so.

        Are you going to tell me next that “most certainly” Bigfoot is real and that “most certainly” Elvis Presley is still alive? If so, I’d like to know. I really like Elvis (Blue Christmas is a fav!).

        If you cannot show something, you don’t know it. You must take it by faith.

  4. Obscenity apparently has been redefined at Cedarville recently with its new Philippians 4:8 policy.

    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians%204:8

    A 1500-word policy written by fallible humans beings backed by a short 33-word-or-so verse. Fewer things are more pathetic than authoritarian administrators hiding behind the Bible to justify their own overreach.

    Don’t claim to use the Bible to support such a draconian policy–it cannot be done. Just admit the obvious: Cedarville is an accredited, really, really expensive version of BJU. Except that maybe BJU will still do Shakespeare, but perhaps Cedarville will not (Romeo and Juliet for sure).

      1. I am curious as to who you are. The CT article was pretty fair, so I agree that it can be trusted. Obviously you don’t like the content of the policy. So please explain your objections. I am also interested to hear why you call CU administration “autocratic hacks.” Do you believe the content of decisions is wrong? If so, what is your philosophy/theology related free speech and especially what ought properly to be used in a classroom context. I don’t believe ad hominem attacks will convince anyone.

    1. Jeff,
      Why did you all of a sudden turn into anonymous? You do realize we can see the same IP address? And after all I’ve done to protect your brand image here….
      :-)

      1. Sorry. I cleaned out my computer cache, and it took away the name.

        Yes, that was me.

        Wonder what side you are on? I assume you are loyalist. Gotta protect that job, you know. Wonder how many faculty heads are going to fly this time around?

        Should we have a pool? I say at least ten faculty will be gone–probably all of the good ones, lol.

        You do know that if I didn’t care about Cedarville, I would not be saying a thing. It hurts me to see the place I used to love make so many unforced errors. Silence to me would be apathy.

      2. “You do know that if I didn’t care about Cedarville, I would not be saying a thing. It hurts me to see the place I used to love make so many unforced errors. Silence to me would be apathy.”
        Yes, I do know know you care about Cedarville. And you should–God is doing amazing things in the lives of the students that are coming through here. I would love to tell you more about what he is doing in the business school. Why not come for a visit during homecoming? I’d really love a discussion with you.

      3. “You do know that if I didn’t care about Cedarville, I would not be saying a thing. It hurts me to see the place I used to love make so many unforced errors. Silence to me would be apathy.”

        I just want to say “good for you”. And I do mean that. After all we talking about freedom of speech :)

        Of course, I see things differently. What you see as unforced errors I do not. Disinviting Shane Claiborne was not one. Having him come later, in my opinion, was. I am sure you disagree. What hurts you about CU likely does not to me and what hurts me likely does not hurt you. Does Cedarville sometimes do things I don’t like? Of course. You will never find a university that will please you 100% of the time.

        But that is the world we live in. Just look at the Republicans and Democrats. I believe both sides (mostly) honestly care about this country and that is why passions are so high when one side sees the other do something it thinks hurts the country. Obviously the same is true of CU alumni.

  5. This is completely true, in my opinion. However, a restriction of speech to only that which is honoring to God is very different than stifling opinions. Academic integrity insists upon providing the full scope of a topic, regardless of the lens.

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