Why Free Speech Means Christians Can't Say Anything They Want

Hell hath no fury like a social media user slighted, if recent cases involving Twitter are any indication.

Twitter caused uproar in January 2012 when it announced that it would begin censoring tweets in some countries if it was judged to be breaking a law in that country. Many noted that Twitter’s new policy was a “radical change from firm's 2011 stance that ‘the tweets must flow.’” Apparently, the good old days of social media—when Twitter was the ‘free speech party’—are already past.

But that may not be such a bad thing. Although Americans are quick to support anything that appears to enable free speech—a constitutionally guaranteed right outlined in the First Amendment—Christians must evaluate social media not only in light of the Bill of Rights, but in light of justice as well.

We find ourselves caught between our rights and our responsibilities—ones that often conflict within themselves. After all, the Center for Public Justice’s guideline on citizenship states, “Freedoms of speech and association are necessary civil rights since they are two of the means by which citizens exercise individual and organized influence in society.” This means that, in addition to political civic participation, citizens are free to use media to make their voices heard; that’s how the First Amendment works.

But recent cases remind us that we never exercise our freedom of speech in a vacuum; rather, free speech often requires justice-type considerations from the start. For example, how do we pursue freedom of speech when international standards do not align? Echoes of the still-ongoing WikiLeaks scandal involving Pfc. Bradley Manning and hundreds of thousands of classified, U.S.-government documents ring loud and clear. Moreover, as an indirect result of Twitter’s policy change last year, a French court orderedTwitter to “identify people who had posted anti-Semitic and racist entries on the social network. Twitter is not sure it will comply. … Twitter has said that under its own rules, it does not divulge the identity of users except in response to a valid court order in the United States, where its data is stored.”

In these cases, who gets justice—the users who tweeted freely or the victims who perceived harm as a result? The question has no easy answer, but it is not one we’ve been particularly anxious to answer either. Rather, it’s more than likely that Twitter’s decision to censor some hateful tweets does not ignite our passion for justice. So perhaps the French case prompts an entirely different question: How does this impact everyday Twitter users, or Americans who simply want the right to tell their friends about our somewhat-inane existences?

The issue of free speech strikes a little closer to our hearts when we consider the recent, highly publicized rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two high school football players recently were convicted of raping a classmate. In that case, the young men posted tweets and pictures of the sexual assault online, “performing for each other.” As a columnist for the New Yorker wrote, “Everything they did, they did together, in a group. It is no accident that they photographed it and they tweeted it. It was their choice to make it public.”

What some young men tweeted that night ultimately served as crucial evidence against them and their friends in court. The young woman who was the victim of the Steubenville rapes received justice only because others did not—at least not in the sense that (some would argue) the young men had the right to say those things without being held liable for them.

But we are held liable for our speech—and we would be outraged if certain forms of speech ever were allowed. While the Constitution offers us freedom to speak as we choose, it never guarantees us freedom from the consequences of our words, especially when our words infringe upon the rights of others. Perhaps Tim Smith, a former Kent State University media law professor, said it best when he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “‘Not even the staunchest of First Amendment advocates would say that you can say anything you want, anywhere and anytime … You've got to balance rights and responsibilities.’”

The Christian imperative, then, is an even higher standard. CPJ’s guideline on government also offers a good reminder that, “while government and citizens hold one another accountable under the law and to the law, the ultimate accountability of both is to God.” The same is true of the words we speak and the content we publish, no matter the venue. We should seek not only to avoid speech that could bear harmful consequences—both for ourselves and for others—but also to speak in ways that honor God.

I suspect that God-honoring free speech takes many forms; it still is not always clear how to use social-media speech as a tool for justice, especially when international politics are involved. Yet, these ambiguities offer us a chance to enter the ongoing conversation, to participate in the free speech debates in ways that are meaningful and helpful. After all, we still have the freedom to say what we want—as long as it’s less than 140 characters.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.