We’ve heard a lot about free speech over the past few years. The restrictions and lockdowns during the pandemic heightened people’s concerns. Those whose narrative is conservative or conspiratorial, especially from a futurist reading of Bible prophecy, are particularly susceptible.

People have protested on the streets the world over against restrictions and mandates perceived to limit freedom. One Christian organisation asked, “What do we do as we see increased attacks on our freedom of speech and association?” A plea for donations followed the question because inciting fear is a great way to get people to give money to support a cause, even if that cause doesn’t exist. I blogged on that last week.

So, let’s define and explore freedom of speech and what the Bible has to say.

Defining Freedom of Speech

Webster’s dictionary defines freedom of speech as “the right to express facts and opinions subject only to reasonable limitations.” This right is enshrined in the Constitution and guaranteed by the 1st and 14th amendments in America.

In Australia, freedom of speech is not a protected right except for political discourse, which is safeguarded from criminal prosecution at common law. However, Australia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which states that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Australian Law

Freedom of speech was limited in Australia by the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. Just over 20 years ago, Section 18C was added to the Act stating, “It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.”

Some have tried, unsuccessfully, to have 18C removed from the Act, but why would they? Who would want to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” based on “race, colour or national or ethnic origin?” Moreover, if they did, why should they get away with it?

It should also be remembered that 18C is modified by Section 18D, where much free speech is protected. The original Racial Discrimination Act was (and still is) primarily concerned with situations in which racism produces a material disadvantage for someone.

Freedom with Responsibility

So, in Australian law (as well as American), we see freedom of speech protected within certain boundaries, reflecting the Bible’s view on free speech. In the beginning, God gave human beings free will but then set parameters: “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but …” (Genesis 1:17). There are limits to your freedom, and there are consequences if you go beyond those limits. In fact, it’s impossible to define or experience true freedom without clear boundaries.

The publishers of Charlie Hebdo Magazine would have been wise to heed that advice. While I disagree with the actions of the terrorists who killed twelve people at Charlie Hebdo in 2015 if you’re going to move into territory that inflames religious extremists, there are most likely consequences. Free speech comes with a great responsibility not to offend unnecessarily.

Freedom with Wisdom

Consider Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders’ Prophet Muhammad cartoon competition which was cancelled in August 2018. Drawing the Prophet Muhammad is seen as blasphemous in parts of the Islamic world and is deeply offensive to some Muslims, so why would someone use their freedom of speech to offend deliberately? It reeks of political opportunism.

The same could be said of Chelsea Manning, who, it should be noted, was convicted of six breaches of the Espionage Act. While President Obama commuted her sentence, the punishment remains on her record. Ms Manning is not just some whistle-blower; she was convicted of espionage and given a lengthy prison sentence. The Australian Government was fully entitled to deny Chelsea Manning a visa and keep her out of the country. Freedom of speech must be modified by wisdom and common sense.

Biblical Boundaries for Free Speech

The Bible limits free speech. As a follower of Jesus, you are NOT free to say anything you like. Neither are you entitled to express whatever is on your mind. Consider Proverbs 29:11, “A fool utters all his mind, but a wise person holds it back.”

Contemplate Colossians 4:6, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” “Seasoned with salt” is a metaphor that communicates “the adding of value” to others by our words rather than offending, sniping and criticising. Discretion limits freedom of speech.

We are also not free to gossip (Proverbs 25:9). Well, we are, but remember those consequences? The Bible also discourages swearing, dishonesty, lying, and insulting. Christians must speak the truth in love and use their words to build others up rather than tearing them down. But that doesn’t mean we can’t respectfully present views that differ from those held by others.

A lost art?

Society needs to learn the art of respectful and robust debate once again rather than trying to win arguments by making personal slurs or trying to silence our opponent.

The Christian church flourishes when it takes its eyes off itself, its rights and its demands and uses its freedom of speech to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9 It’s that kind of free speech that others sit up and listen to.


Main image: “Free Speech” by Newtown Graffiti

This morning we awake to the news of yet another terrorist attack – once again inflicted by Islamist extremists. In Paris, twelve people are dead and eight are injured (four critically) by the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo; a weekly French satirical newspaper. The newspaper has become well known throughout the world over the years for featuring cartoons, reports, jokes and aggressive attacks on religions, politics and culture.  It seems nothing was held sacred or out of bounds.

For some English translations of their more provocative material click on this link:


Two thoughts immediately spring to mind when I consider the horrendous events that took place in Paris yesterday.

Firstly, how far should free speech go?  Now I’m not suggesting the extremist anti free speech of some Communist and Muslim countries. What I am asking is where does self control, respect and decency limit what we say, write and publish? If I know that saying something is going to offend or hurt someone else I practice self control out of respect for that person.  Jesus encapsulated this when He taught people to “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  The French government had requested restraint of Charlie Hebdo several years ago when it published drawings, some of which depicted Mohammad naked and in demeaning or pornographic poses.  These were met with a swift rebuke by the French government, which warned the magazine could be inflaming tensions, even as it reiterated France’s free speech protections.  Charlie Hebdo went ahead and as a result France had to increase security at its embassies across the Muslim world.  Protests occurred across the Muslim world like the violent protests that targeted the United States over an amateur video produced in California that left at least 30 people dead.  In 2005, Danish cartoons of the Prophet sparked a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world that killed at least 50 people. Many innocent people have died because of the sacred cow of freedom of speech.

This leads me to my second thought. As I’ve watched reports on various news networks it is almost laughable to watch reporters side-step the “M” word.  One reporter said it was too early to attribute this attack to any particular ideology. Really?  The assault was carried out by two masked men brandishing AK-47 Kalashnikov rifles, with at least one shouting “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great” in Arabic.  When are the media going to rise above some distorted sense of political correctness and state the obvious? Several reporters also went to extremes to explain that Charlie Hebdo also mocked Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and various political persuasions.  And that is true.  But other religions don’t riot and shoot people.  We don’t hear about Buddhist suicide bombers.  Jews don’t put car bombs outside hotels.  Christians turn the other cheek although we are just as offended by the constant mockery and insults to our faith by the media and Hollywood.

It is true that the vast majority of Muslims are moderate, pious people who suffer more from terrorism and violence than non-Muslims. Ninety-three percent of Muslims do not support extremist views of terrorism according to a conservative Gallup poll.  But that means that 7% do.  Current estimates suggest there are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world.  That means there are about 112 million Muslims who hold extremist views – and they are obviously living among us, as has been made painfully clear by the recent events in France, Australia, Canada, America and many other nations.

So, out of love and respect for others let us limit our freedom of speech but, at the same time, let us call Islamic extremism what it is and work in unity with all peaceful people to see an end to it.