Freedom of speech is of fundamental importance in a democratic society. There can be no true liberty where citizens are not free to speak their minds. As the film Darkest Hour bears eloquent testimony, the thing that drove Churchill as wartime Prime Minister was his determination to safeguard the freedom of the British people. That is what roused him to stand up to Nazi tyranny at all costs, while others were flirting with appeasement.
One of the first freedoms to fall when tyranny takes hold is free speech. Tyrants don’t welcome public criticism. They are threatened by the free exchange of ideas that may call into question their state-sanctioned dogmas. Free speech is under threat today because people think they have the right not to hear things with which they disagree, or may find offensive. We are in danger of falling prey to the tyranny of fashionable opinion.
University students demand ‘safe spaces’ where their opinions won’t be challenged. They require ‘trigger warnings’ should their lecturers touch on controversial subjects. Look at what happened just recently when Jacob Rees-Mogg was invited to speak at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Whether or not we agree with his views, surely he had a right to express them without being shouted down, or pushed around.
Winston Churchill once commented, “Everyone is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.”
Freedom of religion goes hand in hand with freedom of speech. No one has the right to impose their beliefs on others. Faith must not be used as a pretext for inciting hatred or violence. But the freedom to practice and proclaim one’s faith in the public square must be upheld.
Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman is to be commended for standing up to Islamic extremism in English schools, but she struck a worrying note when she equated "the most conservative voices in a particular faith" [Christianity included] with "ideologies that close minds or narrow opportunity".
It is possible to be a theologically conservative Christian and hold socially conservative views, while believing that schoolchildren should study a broad and enriching curriculum that will lead to opportunity for all.
There is a danger that Ms. Spielman's 'muscular liberalism' could prove almost as close-mindedly intolerant and opportunity narrowing as the extremism against which she has rightly taken a stand. I mean, are not, 'individual liberty' and 'mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs' meant to be Fundamental British Values? Maybe 'different faiths' has been redefined as 'different liberal versions of faith'. If so, religious freedom is under threat, and with it, freedom of speech.
Freedom of speech is allied to the search for truth. Having our views challenged helps us come to a better understanding of things. According to the Christian faith human beings are truth-seekers because we are made in the image of the God of truth. We may seek him and find him because God has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ. As Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”