“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”
I have a legal and God-given right to say, to preach, to take up pen or keyboard and express my opinion, give my thoughts, and share my judgments. What I think or believe or declare: about God, about my government, about my fellow citizens, about any person, idea or issue that piques my interest or pricks my conscience or inspires me to speak out.
That’s free speech. Guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech….”
But…is this right always right?
Many years ago I was a young preacher, still so new to the pulpit, always looking for ways to engage the folks in the pews. On the spur of the moment, in the midst of a sermon one Sunday, I made what I thought was a witty joke about the wedding of a couple I’d married the day before, some throwaway lines about how half of the wedding party had been so late for the ceremony. Ha, ha. In the midst of laughter, I looked up and saw that same couple sitting in a pew. Unbeknownst to me they had decided to come to church before leaving for their honeymoon. They wanted to thank me for my work.
Free speech. Mean speech.
I’ll always remember the look of hurt and embarrassment on the face of that young bride. She stood and walked out of the church, as I blushed in deep shame at the pain my thoughtless words, my “free speech”, had caused her. How deep my words had cut and wounded another child of God. After the service I found her and apologized profusely and amazingly, graciously, she forgave me. But I will never forget the lesson I learned that morning about free speech, how I use words to express myself.
I may have the right to my speech. But as I speak and write, especially about another, am I careful, care filled, compassionate, and thoughtful? In what I am about to speak or write, will it build up or tear down? Will it make a situation better or worse? Am I using free speech to puff myself up at the expense of another? Do I even intentionally use nasty or hateful speech to demean or stereotype or attack another? In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a wise adage that neatly expresses a simple formula to use before speaking. Ask yourself. Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me? If you can’t answer “yes” to all three questions, stay silent.
This is just one way to ensure that free speech is right, and not merely a right.
Doesn’t matter if it’s at the dinner table or a protest, on a college campus or at a cocktail party, in the intimacy of a relationship or in comments on Facebook or Twitter. The gift of free speech is that except for rare exceptions, like shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowed theater or using words to directly threaten another, in the United States we enjoy incredible freedom. We can speak and not fear the heavy hand of government. Speak and trust that what we say will be protected by the rule of law, especially when that speech is unpopular. In 2017 we have so many ways to speak, in real and cyber town squares, to say just what we believe, more than ever before in history.
Yet the challenge of free speech is to use it well and prudently. To see it as a gift from God, a human right so powerful, that with just a few words, the course of a nation or world can be changed for the good. Think of Martin Luther King or Franklin Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony or Mother Teresa. Their free speech transformed hate into love, oppression into freedom and despair into hope. With just a few words spoken in kindness, a broken heart can be healed, the young can be encouraged, a prayer can be offered, and a life made better. This ideal all depends, not just upon our right to free speech, but also in the rightness of our free speech: what and how we choose to speak and to write.
So this day—what will you do with your words? How will you use your right to free speech? The decision you make will make a world and a word of difference.