Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Free Speech and Its Disappearance

George Washington warned, “"If the freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter." Sheep are barely aware that they are being led to the slaughter. We seem to be equally unaware that our “freedom of speech” is being slowly pulled away like Utah’s vanishing salt flats. Just a few decades ago, churches were threatened with loosing their tax-exempt status if they spoke out on political issues. Now, people are loosing their jobs:

A Christian property manager in England has been demoted, taken a £14,000/year pay cut and narrowly avoided the sack for commenting on Facebook that Christian churches should not be forced to participate in same-sex union ceremonies. 54-year-old Adrian Smith was declared by a tax-funded housing trust [the Trafford Housing Trust (THT)] to be guilty of “gross misconduct” after he called allowing same-sex ceremonies in churches “an equality too far” in a Facebook comment thread.

• Writing on his own Facebook page, which was not accessible to anyone other than his Facebook friends, Smith had responded to a BBC news item about a controversial new law that would allow churches to conduct same-sex union ceremonies. Asked if his comment meant that he did not approve of the proposed law, Smith wrote, “No, not really. I don’t understand why people who have no faith and don’t believe in Christ would want to get hitched in church. The Bible is quite specific that marriage is for men and women. If the State wants to offer civil marriages to the same sex then that is up to the State; but the State shouldn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience.”

As a result of this horrible transgression, the THT removed Smith from his managerial position that paid £35,000 per year, reemploying him as a £21,000/ year “adviser.” The THT justified this demotion in a,

• Statement to the BBC, saying that its updated code of conduct “clearly set out what use employees can make of social networking sites such as Facebook…Some three months after this new code was issued, Mr. Smith, without our authority or knowledge and on a Facebook page that identified him as a manager at Trafford Housing Trust, made comments that were found, by a full disciplinary investigation in which he had trade union representation, to be in breach of the company’s code of conduct and other policies.”

Understandably, Smith has charged that this policy and demotion violates his rights to free speech, a right that all democracies recognize as essential to accountability and the maintenance of a free society. Such politically correct policies can eventually stifle any speech. If we can no longer express our opinion – even off the job – that “the State shouldn’t impose its rules on places of faith and conscience,” what will be next? Perhaps the State can then impose a ban on speaking against abortion, pollution, corruption, pedophilia, adultery, or even against taxes. Where can the line be drawn?

Smith didn’t even say that homosexuality is “sinful” or that the State shouldn’t marry same-sex couples; he didn’t say anything that could be construed as offensive. Well, I guess the State or the Press might construe that speaking in favor of the autonomy of the church is offensive. However, if this talk is offensive, then why not also talk against the freedom of religion? This too can be construed as offensive, and certainly the talk and actions against Smith can be construed in this manner.

“Offensiveness” can not be used as a standard to silence speech. Any words can be taken as an offense. My wife had innocently asked someone, “Which country do you come from?” He responded back, “You’re bigoted to ask me such a question!”

The Press says many “offensive” things. They charge one person with lying, another with saying something foolish. They criticize one policy in favor of another. They favor one candidate over another. Perhaps the State should impose some policies against such “offensive” speech. It comes down to this – if we are a democrat, we will find a republican’s speech offensive and visa versa. Perhaps instead, we need to learn to tolerate speech that might feel a bit offensive!

Why aren’t the various media outlets speaking out against the many encroachments upon free speech? Free speech is the air they breathe! I’m sure that the ACLU and the media would be crying bloody murder if anyone curtailed their right to speak in favor of abortion, even though it represents the murder of the unborn – a real offense! Perhaps because it’s only their opponents’ free speech that is curtailed?

I think that they would do well to recall what Pastor Martin Niemoller – he had been sent to a concentration camp by Hitler in 1937 – famously lamented,

• First the Nazis went after the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not object. Then they went after the trade-unionists, but I was not a trade-unionist so I did not object. Then they came after me, and there was no one left to object.

We have forgotten how delicate our freedom of speech remains. It is a flower that requires constant nurturing. Carol Swain, Vanderbilt professor of political science and law, warns:

• Many of us have allowed pressure to silence our voices. We’ve questioned our own values, hung our heads in shame, and suspended our common sense…We watch passively as government takes control and eradicates liberties from us and our children.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson added this warning:

• "We have the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, as long as we remain honest — which will be as long as we can keep the attention of our people alive. If they once become inattentive to public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors would all become wolves."

We are told to contend earnestly for our faith (Jude 3). This necessarily includes the right to speak our faith. Meanwhile, we are told that we are no longer a “Christian nation.” Maybe not, but this assertion is being used to undermine our First Amendment protections, one step at a time. Our forth president, James Madison, also warned:

• "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

I think we are seeing this today.

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